Updated: Aug 5, 2022
When you wear a Springboks jersey you feel the weight of history and expectation on your back. When you're a black player wearing the Springboks jersey that weight becomes heavier. When you're the first-ever black captain in a Springboks jersey that weight is almost unbearable. An image written in history, Francois Pienaar lifting the Webb Ellis Cup aloft at Ellis Park in 1995, Nelson Mandela at his side sporting the green and gold. The 2019 image represents the evolution spawned from that moment. As Siya Kolisi hoisted the Rugby World Cup trophy into the air, there was an emotion written on his face that said: 'we did it'. A kid from nowhere who had gone where no-one had gone before; Kolisi 'our king'. In many places around the world, rugby matters. In Wales rugby is near enough a religion. In New Zealand rugby is a show of supremacy. In Japan rugby is a blossoming natural past-time. But only in South Africa can rugby change an entire nation. Politics, power; dreams, scars; history, present; captains, presidents. As 2007 Rugby World Cup winning captain John Smit said prior to the 2019 final: "if Siya touches that trophy... It would change the trajectory of our country." So, how does one man become a symbol of hope, unity and power for a nation? Many will say miracles do not exist, they are a myth and a figment of our imagination. Siya Kolisi's story has the power to change that mindset.
Born to teenage parents in the poor Zwide township, a pile of cushions was his resting place. With his grandmother working two jobs to make ends meet, Kolisi's survival, let alone success, is admirable. There were no state-of-the-art pitches and facilities in Zwide, the hallowed turf was more of a dirt field. And Kolisi had no top-of-the-range kit, in fact he worse his boxer shorts to his first provincial trial. Kolisi had no kit and no pitch, but he had an endless desire and a rare talent.
Fortune favours the brave and a 12-year-old Kolisi was spotted by the coach of an exclusive private school - a full-scholarship followed. Stepping into this alien world, Kolisi never left his old life behind; you can take the boy out of Zwide, but you cannot take Zwide out of the boy. Kolisi's mother passed away when he was 15, with his grandmother passing shortly afterwards. A 16-year-old Kolisi watched the 2007 final in a township tavern because that was his sole access to a television. To say King Kolisi's story is unique is an understatement. Due to South Africa's laws, it is not false to say that previous generations of black rugby players were not afforded the same opportunities and exposure as the current era. A quota system did little to alleviate the scrutiny on the credibility of black players in the national side. As former Springboks prop Hanyani Shimange said: "He's (Kolisi) living the dream of people who weren't given the same opportunities." The 2019 World Cup Final was Siya Kolisi's 50th cap. However, that pales in comparison to his impact off the pitch. Simply put, Kolisi's impact is heightened by all that has come before him. Integration of black players into the South Africa side has long been a contentious topic. In the 1990s it was not uncommon to see black South Africans cheering on the Springbok's opposition, for it was never a true 'South African' team; the green and gold were not representative of the country they represented. When the Springboks won the Webb Ellis Trophy 24 years ago there was one sole black player. At the point of their next triumph in 2007, there were two. Fast-forward to the present day and Kolisi stands as a pivotal and critical link between the past and the future. Born a day before the repeal of the brutal Apartheid regime, Kolisi harnesses the past and allows the legacy of that time to be tangible in the Springbok squad. This is a captain that won't allow his colleagues and teammates to forget where they came from. This is also a captain who leads his country into the dawning of a new ages. Rugby is just a sport, but this image... this image is a moment in history. This is only a game, but it is so much more too. Kolisi carries a heavy weight on his shoulders, but he carries that weight of past ghosts, prosperity and unity into the future.