Siya Kolisi has captained the Stormers for the past two seasons and if John Dobson, who is the new head coach of the Cape Town club, has his way, that won’t change in 2020.
“Siya will be the skipper,” Dobson confirmed at a pre-season media gathering this week. “But I’ll be guided by him.”
Dobson is well aware of the demands on Kolisi’s time since he became the first black player to hoist the Webb Ellis Cup when the Boks beat England 32-12 in the final of RWC 2019 in Yokohama earlier this month.
It was a massive moment for the Springboks, considering they were ranked seventh in the world two years ago and had suffered record losing margins to the All Blacks (57-0) and Ireland (38-3) in the space of six weeks in late 2017.
Winning the World Cup, though, was also a huge moment for South Africa as a country. The image of Kolisi, the first black captain of the Springboks at Test level resonated in sectors of society that previously didn’t care for the fortunes of the Boks, simply because Kolisi was the face of the team.
The RWC 2019 success was also a significant story in every corner of the world, mainly due to Kolisi’s own personal story from poverty to World Cup-winning captain of the Springboks.
The glory, fame and potential riches that have, and will continue to come Kolisi’s way after the team’s exploits in Japan are deserved. But they will exact a price on Kolisi, who will find his life even more scrutinised than before and demands on his time even more pressing.
He has a wife, two young children and is also raising his two teenage siblings, all at the age of 28. He is captain of a world champion rugby team and he is also the captain of the best-supported Super Rugby franchise in the competition. It’s going to be an immensely challenging time for him in the coming months, which is why Dobson sensibly wants to leave the Stormers’ captaincy question up to Kolisi.
“He is the captain and he’ll be the leader of the group, but I shudder to think of the demands being made of him at the moment, his phone must be insane,” Dobson said. “We’re going to have to manage him.
“Siya wanted to have a chat last week, but we decided to let things settle in the aftermath of winning RWC 2019. We might look at taking away the responsibility of captaining on the odd week here and there because Steven Kitshoff did a good job last year.
“I think that’s the right way of doing it. I don’t want to be overly naïve… we have to get momentum early in this competition so there’s less pressure on us when we go on tour. And maybe that’s the window where we could give Siya a bit of a break.”
From a purely marketing perspective, the Stormers want Kolisi to be front and centre of their final campaign at Newlands in 2020. The Stormers will move to Cape Town Stadium in 2021, so there is added pressure from a marketing perspective to sell the move from Newlands, Western Province’s home for more than a century and the Stormers’ home for 23 years, as a good thing.
Kolisi is vital to selling that story. Like the Cape Town Stadium, he represents the newer, shinier version of rugby in the Cape and of the modern world. He needs to be seen, not only as the leader of the Stormers, but as the bridge from a past era to a new, more inclusive and diverse epoch.
Kolisi is probably the most marketable brand in world rugby right now and his face on billboards and in advertising campaigns to promote the perennially under-achieving Stormers is a critical component of the overall marketing strategy.
The cash-strapped WP Rugby has to put bums on seats in the ageing Newlands in 2020 while building excitement about a move into the future at the state-of-the-art Cape Town Stadium.
Kolisi is central to that narrative. Captaining the Stormers or not, won’t fundamentally change Kolisi’s role as the face of the Cape franchise’s marketing campaign next year, but it would be easier if he were officially the skipper.
The decision is entirely up to him, and who could blame Kolisi if he chose to relinquish that role to someone else? He has earned that right. One or two fewer media conferences a week, one fewer sponsor engagement or school visit, which captains are often required to fit into their schedule, could help his own mental state.
Physical exhaustion is unlikely to be a problem for Kolisi, but the mental fatigue that his popularity and position demand, means he needs a way to escape.
However, Kolisi has never shied away from a challenge and it’s unlikely he will put himself above the Stormers team by choosing to forgo formal leadership of the franchise, even though it might be best for him if he did. DM