There is only one man still playing the game who knows what it is like to lead a team to victory over the All Blacks in New Zealand – Siya Kolisi. The handful of others who have done it this century have all quit. John Eales, Martin Johnson, Thierry Dusautoir, John Smit and Sam Warburton.
Famous names and some company for South Africa’s new captain. Kolisi has played 37 Tests but is only six months into the job and it still feels as if he is starting out. The match against England will be the first he has ever played at Twickenham but the place will not seem quite so intimidating given he has got the experience of that famous win in Wellington to draw on.
“That was pretty special from us as a team,” Kolisi says of the 36-34 victory from six weeks ago. Especially because they had just lost two games in a row, away to Argentina and Australia, so “no one expected us to perform like that”. The victory “gave us belief in that we set the standard there. We look at each other now and we know we want to be better than that. We know what we are capable of, so we’ve got to keep on striving to improve and get better each and every single week.” He feels they did play even better again in the return leg against New Zealand two weeks later, when they lost by two points.
That is South Africa’s team mantra now Rassie Erasmus has taken over as the coach. “That’s what he wants from us,” Kolisi says, “making sure you give everything you can, effort is the most important thing. That’s what he judges us on.”
Kolisi finds this need to get better every day “the toughest thing about being a professional sportsman”. It also seems to be the way he copes with the intense and unusual pressure of being South Africa’s first black captain. Erasmus has said before the “enormous emotional pressure” Kolisi was under this summer “affected his game a little bit”.
“It can be very tough to be Springbok captain,” Kolisi says. He and his wife, Rachel, became famous all of a sudden and they have copped the lot on social media, where her every stray comment gets turned into tabloid fodder. As the season has worn on, though, Erasmus has helped Kolisi find a way to cope with his new responsibilities and the extra scrutiny he is under.
“The coach has made my job so much easier because his main focus is for me to put in the best I can for as long as I’m on the field, so that’s what I’ve been trying to focus on, not everything else outside the field.”
Kolisi has come so far so fast it is easy to forget how extraordinary his story is until he reminds you of it. Such as when he says the only memories he has of watching South Africa play at Twickenham are from the last few years because “when I was young, I did not have a TV at home”. He is making up for that now.
He knows England’s No 8 Mark Wilson from watching him on TV: “I saw him play against Toulon for the Falcons and they won in the last minute. It wasn’t analysis. I was just watching a rugby game. I think it was two weeks after we played in the Rugby Championship and I was having a braai [barbecue] and watching the game.”
Which sounds pretty laid back. And Kolisi says he is a “happy” and “chilled” sort of captain, until he gets out on the field anyway. He even became friends with some of the English players during their series last summer.
“We had a couple of sing-songs and I have been chatting to them every now and then, Tom Curry sends me a message and Maro Itoje. That is the most amazing thing about rugby, we bash each other up for 80 minutes and afterwards we chat and get to know each other.”
In some ways, Kolisi’s is a very different sort of South Africa team, in others they are just the same.