Last Saturday, as Siya Kolisi was about to make history as the first black Springbok captain, the Sevens Blitz Bokke tweeted a remarkable picture of a young “Siyamthanda Kolisi getting Schalk Burger’s autograph as a schoolboy”.
A sport feel-good-story…
Siyamthanda Kolisi getting Schalk Burger’s autograph as a schoolboy.
— 7s in South Africa (@BlitzBokke) June 9, 2018
The Incredible Schalk is one of the icons of Springbok rugby, a 2007 World Cup winner with 86 caps and a brief stint as Bok captain. In the picture with his trademark blonde mop, he towers over the schoolboy who would one day follow in his footsteps as Stormers and Springbok captain.
Despite Burger twice coming back from a potentially career-ending injury (he broke his neck but famously only mentioned it on the plane flying home) and a life-threatening illness (bacterial meningitis), Kolisi’s journey has been harder – and therefore more significant. Burger was born into Stellenbosch rugby royalty, a second-generation Springbok, who attended the famous Paarl Gimnasium school that also produced teammate Jean de Villiers, who he would succeed as Springbok captain.
Kolisi grew up poor in Zwide near Nelson Mandela Bay (formerly Port Elizabeth) where his grandmother raised him because his parents were teenagers and too young to care for him.
Asked before his debut if he’d dreamed of this, Kolisi said:
“When you are in the township, you just don’t dream like that”.
This makes his triumph all the more profound – not just as being the first black captain of a sport so dominated and associated with whites, but the remarkable come-from-behind victory he led.
In his 29th Test, and first as captain, the game appeared to be on track to the usual disappointment Bok fans have become accustomed to. After the roar that greeted the first black Springbok captain at Ellis Park last Saturday, the thrill of a new coach and new captain settled into the usual script of a seemingly superior team running holes in our defence.
After 18 minutes, we were 24-3 down to a England team that has been fairly mediocre in the recently concluded Six Nations but seemed unstoppable as the young Springbok side let in three frankly soft tries.
I began regretting bringing my father-in-law to the game for the first time.
But this was to be one of the great come-from-behind victories (the second best according to the statistics) in world rugby and a vindication of the new ethos that director of rugby Rassie Erasmus had hoped.
“This was a simply wonderful rugby occasion, a triumph not merely for South Africa and their first black Test captain, Siya Kolisi, but for anyone anywhere who might have begun to wonder if the international game is losing its lustre,” as the Guardian reported. “There is a bigger picture, though, and it is dominated by the hugely impressive Kolisi, the face of a nation desperate to find new ways to heal past divisions. Extraordinary days like this help immeasurably.”
It was just short of four years since Kolisi, then 22, made his debut against Scotland in Mbombela (formerly Nelspruit) on June 15 2013. He has scored four tries in his 29 test, none more memorable than in last year’s series deciding second Test against France.
Kolisi’s one-handed interception that resulted in a 45-metre individual try was a thing of beauty and a coming of age moment. Anyone who had doubted he would not go on to greater things couldn’t have thought that after this, including where Man of the Match Kolisi also set up Elton Janties for a try in the to win the game 37-15.
— SuperSport ⚽️???? (@SuperSportTV) June 17, 2017
This year Kolisi may have struggled to retain the form that made him such a stand-out player in 2017 but that phrase that “form is temporary, class is permanent” has arguably never been truer.
Under the posts looking down both barrels of a rampant England side and 24-3 down, Kolisi told his team, featuring three debutants, to calm down.
“I was obviously very nervous, it was a tough start,” he said afterwards. “Luckily I had guys like Duane [Vermeulen] who had been in situations like that before and Willie [Le Roux]. We all took charge and told the guys to calm down. We knew that wasn’t what we were capable of. We decided to take control of the game and play at the pace that we wanted to play, and that’s how it changed.”
The moment of magic came from scrumhalf Faf du Klerk, like Le Roux, another player whose form slid but has had a career-boosting stint playing in the tough English leagues.
Livewire Du Klerk scored a now famous base-of-the-ruck try which lead to the fightback, followed by tries to Willie le Roux and debutant wings S’Busiso Nkosi (2) and Aphiwe Dyantyi. Handre Pollard’s kicking added the rest with four conversion and three penalties, but missed one of the former and two of the latter – which might have been the deciding factor after England’s late Mike Brown try drew the score back to an England flattering 42-39.
It can’t be underestimated what an important result this was for Springbok rugby.
The previous two years under Allister Coetzee have been more than a national embarrassment. With the riches of talent we have, we managed to squander all good will with the fans and the opportunity to make Kolisi the captain when Warren Whitely was injured. No-one doubts Eben Etzebeth’s value as a player or captain but Coetzee simply lacked the vision to produce winning rugby or give Kolisi the armband when he had the chance.
After that try in last year’s second Test against France, the humble Kolisi said: “That’s the best I’ve ever felt after a Springbok match”. No doubt that was eclipsed by his – and his team’s heroics – at Ellis Park. DM
* Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff (Stuff.co.za) but has twice been the Mail & Guardian’s sports editor. He has written rugby for The Guardian, The Observer, ThisDay, The Times and AFP.