The bomb

The bomb

Courage and conviction defined Siya Kolisi as a child. The same qualities have made him one of South Africa’s finest rugby players. By Clinton van der Berg

In the world of rugby, the role of the openside flanker is far removed from the blindside flanker. The former is the flashy, pacy player who tends to pop up to make the glory pass. The latter is the big, heavy grafter who mucks in, spoiling and wrestling his way to gains on the ground.

It’s difficult to know quite what Siya Kolisi is. He’s played across all three positions in the back row. You seldom see him with his head up. He’s a familiar sight: head down, always working, fiddling and harassing.

He’s unusual in the sense that he’s so versatile, possessed of an engine that never stops turning over. He’ll muck in wherever he’s required.

This is just one of the many narratives that defines Kolisi.

His standing as a local hero gives no hint of his tangled early life, a life that gave him an edge and a hardness that typifies his grinding, gutsy playing style. The big hits, the battered bones and the lung-bursting demands of the game are nothing next to what he knows.

Where Kolisi grew up, in hardscrabble Zwide township, near Port Elizabeth, he was used to sleeping on the floor and eating scraps of food. The long-drop toilet was outside.

Which is why you won’t hear the 26-year-old complaining much nowadays. The privations of the modern player barely register for a man like Kolisi. When you’ve lived tough, rugby and its attendant knocks are a comfort, not a hardship.

And so it was as he joined African Bombers as a boy. The famous black township club had few luxuries, but it was a refuge from the hard streets. Short and squat, little Siya was thrust into the front row where the chubby kids tend to thrive. He loved it.

Jerseys, socks and other gear were always in short supply, but the boys made do.

If afternoons at African Bombers were the start of a remarkable journey, the circle was closed somewhat 16 years later when Kolisi, now one of South Africa’s most celebrated players and far removed from the front row, visited his former club. He had with him a complete set of brand-new rugby jerseys.

The club was overjoyed. Kolisi might have blazed a bold new path, but he’s still a Bombers boy at heart.

If Bombers ignited a flame, it was given oxygen when Grey High in Port Elizabeth, a famous rugby school, came calling after a scout had seen him tearing up the fields as a 12-year-old. Kolisi was handed a full scholarship that ensured neither he nor his family had to wonder where his next meal, or money to pay school fees, would come from.

He duly thrived in South Africa’s verdant schoolboy rugby nursery, filling out as a muscle-bound flank with relentless energy. Craven Week selection confirmed his promise, Kolisi having proved that he was one to keep an eye on. He even learnt English.

Kolisi is now the main man at the Stormers, the team’s first choice blindside flank and captain. He occasionally wears Schalk Burger’s old number, so big boots have been filled.

In the Western Cape, where rugby’s tribal loyalties are more pronounced than anywhere in South Africa, Kolisi is a modern-day talisman.

He’s a powerful symbol of transformation, giving sustenance to the view that rugby excellence comes in all shapes and sizes – and colours. A few months ago the question of who may be South Africa’s next rugby captain swirled about and Kolisi’s name was thrown into the mix. No one complained. All people cared about was his rugby.

If only that were true of life beyond the game, for when he married last year, crossing the colour line to do so, he and his wife endured a gush of online bile, a dark by-product of South Africa and its grim history.

Fortunately, he’s resolute enough not to get caught up in the nonsense, preferring to ignore the animosity and act like the totem he’s become. ‘I have no time for racists,’ he says defiantly.

Although he and Rachel, his wife, have one child (two-year-old Nicholas Siyamthanda) and a daughter on the way, they had a ready-made family from the start: Kolisi adopted his half-siblings three years ago.

In an extraordinary act of selflessness, Kolisi took custody of Liyema and Liphelo after the pair had lived in orphanages following the death of their mother (also Siya’s) eight years ago.

It means their home in Pinelands is a whirlwind of activity with the shrieks and giggles of a typical young family frequently punctuating the air.

With Kolisi often on the move as a rugby player, life isn’t always easy at home.

‘It was tough at the beginning trying to settle everyone, especially with the travelling. But my wife’s a rock star. We’re dedicated to giving our kids the best opportunities.’

He doesn’t say so, but his determination could be inspired by his own deep sense of loss, having suffered the death of his grandmother (who effectively raised him), his aunt and his mother, all while he was still a youngster.

He’s also driven by his faith, which underscores his life. Any pressure he may have as the patriarch of a large, and unusual, family is pressure he himself brings to bear.

‘I want to be an example. I have to perform and be a good person off the field too,’ he says.

This sense of self is amplified in Stormers country where rugby players are revered. Kolisi loves what he does, but needs to consciously seek out balance, whether via his family or his church, where he pursues counsel from the local pastor.

Jean de Villiers, former Springbok captain, is another source of inspiration. De Villiers has taken him under his wing and is helping to mentor him, a valuable commodity given how De Villiers himself had to endure pressure, injury and the ever-present obsession of local fans.

Having shifted straight into professional rugby after school, Kolisi is mindful of the need to develop a career beyond the game. One of his current projects is an underwear range, launched in July, that he is particularly proud of. He teamed up with former Grey school mate (and Western Province player) Tim Whitehead to start the Frankees range, which is bold, bright and fun.

‘I wanted to start something while playing because rugby won’t last forever. Unfortunately, a lot of guys don’t give it much thought.’

Kolisi is into early double figures for Springbok caps, but he wants more, conceding that he still has much to learn. The pool of high-quality loose forwards in South Africa is deep and standards are high. Kolisi cannot afford to waver or have self-doubt.

‘I want to be a regular in the team and will do my best to add value. There are great players about; I have to be better.’

His ambitions are suitably lofty and he picks Super Rugby, the Rugby Championship and the World Cup in 2019 as his goals. Nothing less than holding aloft those trophies will sate his hunger for glory.

On a broader plain, he accepts that his status as a black player from an impoverished background offers a compelling symbol of overcoming hardship, even discrimination.

‘I’ve got a voice,’ he says with conviction. ‘My goal is to inspire people and to help as many as I can … in every way and with every colour. I’m proof that your background needn’t determine your future. You can always make it.’

It’s a message of hope that deserves retelling. Kolisi has fought back to make it, defiantly and definitely.

Styling: Sharné Cupido; Photography: Andreas Eiselen/HMimages.co.za, gallo/gettyimages, trune todd
Photography; Grooming: Amori Birch

 

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