It was the week after Siya Kolisi’s fourth birthday when Nelson Mandela presented Springboks captain Francois Pienaar with the Webb Ellis Cup in a defining moment for rugby, and for South Africa.
Kolisi was 16 when the Springboks won their second Rugby World Cup title. There was no television at his home, he recalls, so he had to go to a tavern to watch John Smit lift the trophy after beating England in the 2007 final in Paris.
Twelve years on, the first black player appointed as Springboks captain gets a chance to etch his name in history on Saturday when he leads South Africa in the final against England in Yokohama.
“I know what it did for us back then,” Kolisi said of that 2007 victory. “I have never seen people come together (like that) over sport.”
Momentum for that started in 1995, the year after Mandela became president in a democratic election after decades of racial segregation and his own imprisonment for 27 years. He was pivotal in ensuring the Springboks kept their name, their emblem and their green jersey in the wake of the apartheid era, hoping it could help unite a deeply divided country rather than be a symbol of oppression.
South Africa had been re-admitted to international sport following sanctions, and was hosting the Rugby World Cup in ’95 when the Springboks held off New Zealand in the final. Mandela famously wore a Springboks jersey with the No. 6 on the back, Pienaar’s number, at the cup presentation.
It was the beginning of a new era. Joining Kolisi in the starting forward pack — the engine room of the Springboks game plan — will be two black front-rowers: 34-year-old prop Tendai Mtawarira and hooker Bongi Mbonambi.
Mtawarira, a trailblazer with 116 test caps for South Africa, takes great pride in Kolisi’s ascent.
“What Siya has achieved has been remarkable. For a young kid from Zwide township in Port Elizabeth to rise above his circumstances and become Springbok captain, and lead the way he has, it’s been inspirational to all South Africans — from all walks of life,” Mtawarira said. “The way South Africa has gotten behind him, it means a lot to unite the country. He’s been exemplary, so it’d be amazing to win this World Cup with him as captain.”
The Springboks were languishing when coach Rassie Erasmus, a former Springboks flanker who also got to lead his country and who has an eye for game-changing talent, promoted Kolisi to the captaincy in June last year. A year after a record loss to New Zealand, the Springboks beat the All Blacks in 2018 and the climb back toward the top was underway.
Injuries curtailed Kolisi’s season as South Africa won the 2019 Rugby Championship, the pinnacle of the southern hemisphere’s competitions, but he returned to take his place at the helm for the World Cup.
The final will be his 50th test match, and obviously his teammates want to ensure it’s a golden jubilee.
Try-scoring winger Chester Williams, who died in September, was the only person of color in that Springboks XV that won in ’95, under the “One Team, One Country” banner.
The influx of players post-apartheid and an overhaul of selection policies has enhanced the racial composition of the squad. Players and coaches talk regularly about the importance of the Springboks representing 55 million people.
Mbonambi, a long-time teammate of Kolisi’s at provincial level, says “to make it to the final is really massive for him — and not just for him, but for the whole nation and the whole team.”
He said having the first black Springboks captain lifting the trophy would mean that the entire squad had achieved.
“For me, personally, it wouldn’t really matter if it’s black or white. When it comes to the Springboks, we are all wearing the same jersey, and we must represent one nation,” he said. “I’m happy that Siya is the South Africa captain in a World Cup final, and it’s a massive stage that everyone dreams about being on, and to turn a massive opportunity into reality.”
Kolisi was a replacement in two games in the 2015 World Cup but has started in all the major games this time. Erasmus, who had a hand in Kolisi’s first professional contract, said there wasn’t a lot of conversations or buildup to the Springboks appointment. He simply was the best-performing captain of a South African franchise in Super Rugby.
“My plan never was this big thing to get the country behind us,” Erasmus said. “It was very sudden on him.
“I was a bit naive, because the whole emotional things that went around that in South Africa, about having the first black captain for the Springboks, certainly caught Siya off guard, it caught me off guard. And I thought his game suffered a little bit in the first few games. Then he got better and better.”
Erasmus said it had sunk in, and “I understand how big it is.”
“It’s a wonderful story, and for him to handle those emotional extras, is just wonderful,” Erasmus said, “and really, well done by him.”
Kolisi took a call from President Cyril Ramaphosa before last weekend’s 19-16 semifinal win over Wales, and said “it’s really special to see how they have bought into what we are doing here.”
Ramaphosa will be there for the final, and so will Kolisi’s father, who is flying overseas for the first time.
Each progressive step through the tournament, from the group stage to the quarterfinal win over host Japan to the semifinal win, Kolisi has stuck to a theme of the team bringing something special to all South Africans.
“Yes, we do have many different races in our country, and 11 different languages. It is one of the positives of our country. It’s really beautiful (and) that’s why we are called the ‘Rainbow Nation,’” he said. “Winning is very important for our country. It just shows that when we decide to work together for one goal or as a team and as a country, we can make anything happen.
“I’ve seen what it has done for the country before — I was old enough to remember the 2007 World Cup — and I know what it would do now.”