From joker to captain courageous, Kolisi reaches milestone

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Rugby Union – Rugby World Cup 2023 – Pool B – South Africa v Ireland – Stade de France, Saint-Denis, France – September 23, 2023 South Africa’s Siya Kolisi applauds the fans after the match REUTERS/Sarah Meyssonnier

TOULON, France (Reuters) – Siya Kolisi will captain South Africa for the 50th time in the must-win Rugby World Cup Pool B clash with Tonga in Marseille on Sunday, something that would have seemed fanciful in his early years when just having food on the table was a daily challenge.

The flanker has become an iconic figure in the game after helping his side to the 2019 World Cup title in Japan, and is arguably South Africa’s most loved sportsperson at home. Only John Smit has more tests as Springbok captain with 83.

Kolisi never dreamed of playing for South Africa growing up in poverty-stricken Zwide, let alone becoming a symbol of a united team.

“I played rugby because I enjoyed it, it kept me out of trouble and most of my friends played. I definitely didn’t think I would be sitting here now,” he told reporters on Friday.

His captaincy journey started with the Stormers in 2017 when he was made skipper by former Bok centre Robbie Fleck, and Kolisi conceded it took time to adapt to his new responsibilities.

“I’ve always been the joker in the team, the naughty one. Coach Fleckie came to my wedding and heard me speak. After that he said, ‘I think you should lead the team’,” Kolisi said.

“He gave me the captaincy but it took a while. I would always be the last one at the party, the drunkest one in the room, and now I must be something different.”

Bok director of rugby Rassie Erasmus also saw leadership in Kolisi, and the symbolism of making him South Africa’s first black captain a year later in 2018.

“Coach Rassie has known me since I was 17, Jacques (Nienaber) since I was 18. They know what kind of person I am, and they built things around me.

“In my mind, being captain of the Springboks is a big thing already, but for so many people it meant so much more and I didn’t understand the weight of it.

“I was fortunate to have the players we have in the group; Duane (Vermeulen), Eben (Etzebeth), Pieter-Steph (du Toit) and Handre Pollard. I honestly wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t have the guys that we have.”

Kolisi still carries that sense of playing for more than the 33 members of the World Cup squad.

“Smashing someone, being smashed by someone and telling them, ‘I’m going to get you back’. You have to have courage to do it,” he said.

“We know it’s not just us on the field, it’s the people back home too. It’s tough, but you have to be brave.”

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