Cape Town – As with so many other aspects of painstakingly transitioning South African society, it’s the bigger picture that needs to be considered first and foremost.
In that respect, the selection by new Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus of Stormers frontman Siya Kolisi – yes, despite his almost indisputably iffy personal showings of late – as national captain for the looming England series is a poignant, seminal moment in Bok history.
Erasmus has over-ridden, in a sense, what Kolisi “is”, as a player right now, in favour of what many knowledgeable experts know he consummately can be when his best game face is on: an inspirational fellow indeed on the side of the scrum, able to both clatter into but also step deftly in open play and off-load in (or a millisecond before) the tackle with great adroitness.
There will be some, on more justifiable, current rugby form ammunition, and still others with more instantly prejudicial or provincialist tendencies, you can be sure, who will turn their noses up at Kolisi getting the nod for the three-Test challenge.
But the pro-Siyamthanda camp – whose ranks are also considerable and notably representative – will rejoice unreservedly at this landmark, as the near 27-year-old from humble, challenging roots in Zwide in the Eastern Cape becomes the first black African player to lead the country in a fullest-scale international.
That will happen when the Boks run onto the Emirates Airline Park turf for the first Test against the English on June 9.
Chiliboy Ralepelle, the now SA-recalled Sharks hooker, led the Boks once in a non-Test match against a “World XV” at Leicester, under Jake White’s watch, in 2006.
He was then a raw 20-year-old, and his career has seen much tumult since then, including a doping ban.
But it’s real-deal stuff for Kolisi, who leads the troops in very keenly-awaited Test combat against one of South Africa’s most traditional rugby foes during June.
What Kolisi has proved far more comprehensively than the 23-cap (only two as a starter) Ralepelle in his own international career so far is his extremely apparent comfort at the highest tier when in optimal touch.
Last season, for example, Kolisi was one of the most consistent Springbok stand-outs in another otherwise wretched season, the second and last under the coaching guidance of Allister Coetzee.
Settled into the No 6, open-side flank role, after a period in his green-and-gold career when he was generally less conspicuous as the blind-sider, Kolisi was one of desperately few Boks to produce properly thrilling or innovative moments whenever his body language so clearly oozed passion and intent.
He cleaned out rucks and drove with an energy that defies his relatively economical, not much more than 100kg body mass, while his raids down the touchline and deft linking instincts often contributed to some of the better Bok attacks.
It is the very range of that known skill set, understandably, that will have rightly frustrated a good many Kolisi monitors and admirers more recently, as he has too seldom reproduced it during Super Rugby 2018.
Kolisi has slipped in standards roughly in line with the whole team under his command, as their record stands at a disappointing “played 14, won five” and now massively likely absence from the playoffs for the first time since 2014.
He is good – and candid before a media microphone – at taking bad times squarely on the chin, both on a personal and team level.
Nor would he, you’d imagine, offer up any excuse based around overuse … a phenomenon that I believe may not be without merit in explaining his dip in recent months.
Put it this way: Kolisi and certain other compatriots seldom benefit from energising “rotation” or sabbatical in the manner top New Zealand players do.
But he also led the franchise, remember, to considerably more acceptable heights in his maiden season as full-time skipper in 2017; they won their Africa “sub-conference” easily and only blew out of the knockouts narrowly (17-11) to the Chiefs.
Let’s face it, Newlands isn’t at its happiest these days, considering the deep cash crisis and ongoing administrative controversy, and Kolisi has also been minus, for the entire campaign so far, his great mate and pack enforcer Eben Etzebeth.
Those disputing Kolisi’s ascent to the Bok leadership should also bear in mind that Erasmus didn’t have a massive school of candidates to pick from: when men like Warren Whiteley and Etzebeth eventually return to action from long-term injury, their own credentials for the post will also re-enter the equation quite powerfully.
Kolisi is a temporary appointment, and he will know that.
At the same time, getting the full series against England is a decent show of confidence in its own right, and he will wish to take the opportunity to prosper rousingly at the tiller of the Bok boat.
Desperately few national sports captains are lucky enough to earn universal or near-universal approval levels from the public and pundits, and Kolisi, especially because of the difficulties of the last few months, will be no special exception to that rule.
That said, I can think of many among the country’s rugby intelligentsia who will hail this step; some already very publicly and swiftly have.
If Kolisi recaptures his Springbok-specific form of 2017 over the next few weeks, it should seep positively into his captaincy as well, making him a real possibility for leading the SA cause at RWC 2019.
And that would be an enormous societal unifier in these fractious times, don’t you think?
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