The first thing you notice about Siya Kolisi is his smile. The trademark smile, unassuming, honest and natural.
The next is just how soft he speaks. In a world where machismo and bravado often dominate and the loudest voice normally gets heard more than any other, Kolisi speaks softly, quieter than any other Springbok captain.
Speak softly and carry a big stick, the saying goes. Kolisi carries no stick, but exudes a respect amongst his peers, the Springbok management and media alike.
And it is the small things. Kolisi takes the time to greet every media member with a handshake before a press conference. He listens when you speak. Even when it’s a word afterwards, he listens.
This would be impressive if it came from any player who had an average background. In Kolisi’s case, it comes across so naturally you almost forget about his journey. And it is a journey that will tear at the heartstrings.
But while it has been well told, it doesn’t define the Springbok captain. A captain who grows in his role and surprises many. A captain who shakes off the criticism and does his talking on the field. Every time Kolisi has been written off in his life, he has stepped up and surprised. Every time he has faced a challenge, he has overcome it.
This Saturday Kolisi will walk onto the field as the proud captain of a Springbok team that was written off just 24 months ago. As much as Rassie Erasmus has done exceptional things to turn the Springbok ship around, he has been assisted by a captain who leads by example.
THE PRESSURE COOKER
Looking at Kolisi you’d be mistaken if you thought he felt the pressure. It certainly doesn’t come across like it.
“Of course I feel the pressure, its real,” he smiles as he affirms the obvious.
The 28-year-old is the first black captain of a nation whose population is 76.4% Black South African, and only the third skipper to lead the Springboks to the World Cup final, but he is more than just that. He is an icon, an inspiration for millions and the true success of the dream left by Nelson Mandela 24 years ago when the Boks raised the Webb Ellis trophy for the first time.
It’s not lost on anyone who is close to the team that Kolisi has the iconic number six on his back. And while experts in the game question at times whether he is an openside or blindside flanker, it doesn’t really matter. Kolisi has spent his life fitting into places that he wasn’t expected to.
But that is the charm of him. You expect something different. But what you see – literally – is what you get. His disarming nature is precisely his biggest asset. The fact that despite his back-story he comes with so little baggage makes him all the more personable.
His reaction – as natural as it could be – to a message from tennis star Roger Federer ahead of the first game of the World Cup on TV network CNN is the perfect example of Kolisi being Kolisi. Genuinely surprised, it seemed like the moment was too much for him. He was loving it. And it showed.
For a player who has risen from the dusty township streets of Zwide, out of hunger and desperation, into South African rugby’s biggest role, he takes it all so casually. For a man who has fathered two children, and rescued his two half-brothers from foster care, he never speaks about himself. And when he does he seems almost embarrassed by the attention.
On Saturday Kolisi will meet his biggest challenge. The pressure of a World Cup final is unlike any other. Fourie du Preez talks about being nervous for only two games in his life, his debut and the 2007 World Cup final. The pressure is something else.
A NATION EXPECTS
But Kolisi has never tried to go it alone. Francois Louw, fellow loose forward and long-time teammate said it all too well this week. Siya knows the weight of expectation he is carrying.
“Siya’s got a lot of weight on his shoulders in terms of the role as captain, with regard to the makeup of our country and our nation – where we’ve come from, where we are right now,” Louw explained. “It’s a role he’s grasped fully. I’ll never forget the first thing he did as captain was to encourage those around him to support him and help him lead.
“Being self-aware, again, is a fantastic trait of a leader. Find out what your strengths and weaknesses are, and make sure you surround yourself with people who are wiser than you in areas, and you will succeed.
“Siya is very aware of that, and he’s led with great example, with great courage,” Louw added. “And he rallies the guys up when necessary. He’ll call on specific players to act on certain areas of the game, and to take leadership and control there.”
MAN OF THE PEOPLE
Kolisi’s own band of travelling supporters, the Gwijo-squad, formed just after he became captain and have been a welcome breath of fresh air in rugby circles. Their founder Chulumanco Macingwane felt it was right to form the group to share their rugby culture with other South Africans and to support Kolisi as captain.
The Boks welcomed them with open arms, and there are countless videos of the Gwijo squad singing the night before a test to spur the team on. And every single time, Kolisi ventures out of the team hotel and joins them in song. Few other rugby nations would see a captain do that.
THE BACKING OF A LEGEND
Weeks before his death, former Springbok winger Chester Williams – the face of the 1995 World Cup campaign, spoke about the expectations and pressure on Kolisi. One of the few to understand the unique pressure on the captain and the expectations he creates, Williams explained why he believed Kolisi was strong enough to handle it all.
“It is the second year that Siya is captain of the team, and there will always be pressure on the captain,” Williams said. “I think what makes it easier for him is the fact that the team grew so much during this time. They became a family. You could see it on the field and it helps relieve that pressure. But the pressure is still his.
“He has the number six jersey, and is the example for all the winning captains before him. And the fact he is the first black captain makes that pressure a lot tougher.”
Williams admitted the pressure “caught” him out during 1995. He never expected it to creep up on him as it did.
“I think you never really understand the expectations that people have of you,” he added. “I was the only player of colour in the team, and you don’t realise how much they expect of you. It only hits you in the tournament itself.
“Siya leads by example, he doesn’t say a lot but his personality is such that if you step on his toes, he will confront you about it. But in a nice way.”
FAITH CAN MOVE MOUNTAINS
Ex-Bok captain Warren Whiteley believes Kolisi is handling the pressure just fine, and says there are few like him that could handle the pressure he is under.
“Siya and I are very close. He is a good friend, and we talk a lot. He is an inspiration for many people,” Whiteley said. “It isn’t easy, especially as there is a lot of pressure that comes with the job of being captain.
“There is a lot of pressure on him. I know a cornerstone in his life is his faith. That and his family give him the strength.”
Kolisi will take those steps onto the pitch on Saturday knowing he has already changed the face of South African rugby. Players like him come once in a generation.
It almost seems like Springbok rugby was waiting for someone that could inspire the country in a way that no other has before on a rugby field.
Kolisi has already done that. Win or lose on Saturday, he has already defied every expectation on his rise to the top.
Don’t be surprised if he proves some doubters wrong once again this weekend.