Johannesburg — Siya Kolisi had difficulty speaking immediately after his Springbok team completed an emphatic 35-7 demolition of New Zealand’s All Blacks in their final warm-up match before the Rugby World Cup.
It was not because he was choked up with emotion. He simply could not be heard above the cheers of South African supporters at London’s Twickenham stadium when he stepped up for his after-match interview.
“Thank you, thank you,” he said as he waited for the noise to subside.
Then he showed the instinctive ability to say the right thing that has helped make him, in the words of former All Blacks scrum-half Justin Marshall, “an international rugby icon”.
Kolisi, 32, started his remarks by thanking the supporters.
“You remind us why we work so hard,” he said. “We do it for you.”
Kolisi’s appointment as Springbok captain in 2018 was a masterstroke by then Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus.
Getting pumped for Rugby World Cup (kicks off next week).
Siya Kolisi of South Africa 🇿🇦 coming off a massive injury still one of the most complete athletes in all sports.
Big, strong, fast and technical. Just scary. pic.twitter.com/lmQeR2UUFB
— Maximiliano Bretos (@MaxBretosSports) August 31, 2023
Barely a year later he led South Africa to glory in the 2019 World Cup in Japan, capping an extraordinary rise from a hungry, impoverished childhood in a township on the outskirts of Port Elizabeth, now called Gqeberha.
The 1.88 metre, 105 kilogram flank forward has led by example on and off the field, uniting sports followers of all races and political affiliations behind the Springboks – a remarkable achievement in a troubled, divided society.
Kolisi’s comeback from a serious knee ligament injury defied conventional medical opinion.
His right knee was mangled in a United Rugby Championship match for the Sharks against Munster in Durban on April 22 this year.
Scans revealed a partially torn cruciate ligament, an injury which typically can take between six and nine months to heal.
Being able to play in the World Cup, less than five months away, seemed unlikely.
“I told my wife I don’t think I’m going to make it. She was in tears,” said Kolisi.
“I was really scared,” he admitted.
But the skill of specialist surgeon Willem van der Merwe – a former first-class cricketer – and Kolisi’s determination kept the dream alive.
He was also buoyed by the backing of Erasmus, now South Africa’s director of rugby, and head coach Jacques Nienaber.
“The bottom line is that he is our captain. We won’t replace him – we will have stand-in captains,” Erasmus stressed.
The Springboks had three different leaders in four matches before Kolisi’s return – back-rower Duane Vermeulen, lock Eben Etzebeth and hooker Bongi Mbonambi.
“We will give him as much time as possible,” said Nienaber, amid constant media questions about the captain’s chances of making it to France.
It took less than four months before Kolisi led the team in a warm-up match against Wales in Cardiff on August 19.
It took him only four minutes to make an impact with a half-break and skilful offload that set up South Africa’s first try for hooker Malcolm Marx in a 52-16 win.
Kolisi was substituted at half-time in Cardiff and stayed on the field six minutes longer at Twickenham, where he scored the first try and set up the third as South Africa romped to a record win over their arch rivals.
The Johannesburg Sunday Times were glowing in their praise of Kolisi after the demolition of the All Blacks.
“It is no coincidence that the Springboks’ two (best) performances of 2023 pre the World Cup happened with Kolisi back in the No. 6 jersey and leading the team.
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“Kolisi is an inspiration and the Springboks are simply better when he is the first player out of the tunnel.
“His transformation from tackle-bag carrier at the 2015 World Cup to the most influential player in the Springboks, and an icon of the game in 2023, is monumental.
“It cannot be spoken of enough. He cannot (be) given enough praise and (he has) defied medicine — given he underwent knee surgery less than four months ago.
“When Kolisi lifts, those around him lift. Pieter-Steph du Toit was back to his imposing 2019 ‘world best’. Duane Vermeulen is rejuvenated, and the Boks have two sets of forwards with equal power and presence.”
After 86 minutes of action spread over two matches, Kolisi said he had come through without any after-effects from his injury.
But with the World Cup looming, he said after the Twickenham match that “the hard work starts now”.
After training camps in Corsica and Toulon, South Africa begin their World Cup defence against Scotland in Marseille on September 10.
The Springboks will also face Romania, Ireland and Tonga in Pool B with the top two finishers qualifying for the quarter-finals.
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