South Africa captain Siya Kolisi did not have a television at home the last time the Springboks played in the Rugby World Cup final but 12 years on leads his team out in Saturday’s decider against England in a remarkable rags to riches story.
From growing up in a dusty, poverty-stricken township on the eastern coast of South Africa to the Yokohama International Stadium caps a remarkable journey for Kolisi, the first black man to captain the Springboks and now increasingly a new symbol for South African unity.
“For a young kid from Zwide township in Port Elizabeth to rise above circumstances and become Springbok captain and lead the way‚ he has just been inspirational to South Africans from all walks of life‚” teammate Tendai Mtawarira said in the build-up to Saturday’s final in Japan.
Kolisi grew up in one of the few black areas where rugby is as popular as soccer, raised by his paternal grandmother, but did not pick up a rugby ball until he was seven.
His talent was quickly recognised, though for Kolisi rugby was no more than a distraction from life’s daily toil.
“It’s tough to stay on the right path because sometimes hunger makes you do things that you never thought you would do,” he explained before the kick-off of the World Cup last month.
“Some of my friends would steal and some died because they got into bad things.”
But Kolisi’s talent gave him an opportunity to get away from temptation as he won a bursary to Port Elizabeth’s top boys school Grey High, but even then going on to be a Springbok and play in a World Cup was furthest from his mind.
“You don’t dream about that where I am from,” he said.
“He adapted well to the posh school but it was on the rugby field where he excelled. Siya was rewarded with a call-up to the South African Schools team and a contract to join Western Province,” added his biographer Jeremy Daniel.
Kolisi was 16 when South Africa edged England in the 2007 final in Paris.
“I was watching it in a tavern, because I didn’t have a TV at home.”
Saturday’s final marks a 50th cap for Kolisi, who made his debut for his country in 2013 and participated at the 2015 World Cup where South Africa finished third.
“I’m very happy that I have reached 50 – not a lot of Springboks have achieved that – but the most important thing is that I do my bit for the team and everything else will fall into place,” he told a news conference in Tokyo on Friday.
“It would be huge to show our country that no matter where we come from, if we can bind to one plan, we can achieve our goals,” Kolisi added.
702’s Eusebius McKaiser added this week that “it is understandable but limited to be moved by stories of exceptional individuals (like Siya Kolisi) overcoming incredible odds to achieve world-class feats”. Writing about Kolisi and three others (including himself) with similar rags to riches tales, McKaiser said all four were lucky and worked hard… “but luck and hard work aren’t mutually exclusive. Luck needs to be supplemented with a caring society that gives every child the opportunity to achieve. That is why we should be aware of the limits of inspirational stories…” (Read the full article here.)
(Editing by Giles Elgood/Reuters and Jenni Baxter/SAPeople)