Siya Kolisi once said that he only believed he had a chance of one day playing for the Springboks when he saw a close neighbour, Solly Tyibilika, playing for South Africa against Scotland in 2004.
Kolisi was a youngster and was watching the Boks in a crowded room when flank Tyibilika took the field in the green and gold.
“I used to fight with the other kids to carry Solly’s kitbag when he played for our township team, and when I saw him playing for South Africa, it made it tangible for me,” Kolisi said.
Years later, Kolisi is poised to captain the Boks for the 50th time – tomorrow night against Tonga in a World Cup Pool B match in Marseille (9pm kick-off) – and once more it has taken him back to his humble roots.
“It’s honestly something I never dreamed of, that I never thought would happen. Where I come from, I didn’t have dreams like that,” the Bok No 6 said yesterday.
“I played rugby because I enjoyed it. I played it because it kept me out of trouble, and I played it because most of my friends played it.
“I definitely didn’t think I would be sitting here now, and it would not have happened had it not been for the inspiration I was given (by Tyibilika).”
Speaking from France, Kolisi said that it was former Stormers coach Robbie Fleck who had first recognised his leadership potential.
“I had always been the joker in the team, the naughty one. Coach Fleckie came to my wedding and he heard me speak. After the wedding, he said, ‘I think you should lead the team’.
“He gave me the captaincy, but it took a while. I had always been the joker, the last one at the party, the drunkest one in the room – and now I had to be something different. It took a while, but I just try to be myself in everything I do.
“Here at the Springboks, that was tough. It was really difficult at the beginning because I don’t think there’s any greater honour than playing for the Springboks, to captain a team like this with its history and everything.
“Being the first black captain, it was difficult. In my mind, I was being captain of the Springboks.
“It’s a big thing already, but for so many people, it meant so much more, and I didn’t understand the weight of it.
“I was fortunate to have the players we have in the group – Duane (Vermeulen), Eben (Etzebeth), who have captained the team (at the time), Pieter-Steph (du Toit), who has captained the team, Handré Pollard – I honestly wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t have the guys that we have, and also the coaching staff.”
Kolisi added his close relationship with director of rugby Rassie Erasmus has been pivotal. Erasmus appointed Kolisi Springbok captain in June 2018.
“Coach Rassie understands me. He’s known me since I was 17 years old, Jacques since I was 18. They know what kind of person I am, and they built things around me.
“My role hasn’t changed since that first game that I played. It’s simple … I just have to play well and talk to the ref.
“Honestly, without the team that we have, the players and the management, I don’t think I would have lasted.”