Kolisi's inspiration extends way beyond rugby pitch

The Springboks captain, admired by the great and the good for his leadership and humility, is shouldering a nation's hopes of a third World Cup triumph.

TOKYO, 18 Oct - The Siya Kolisi story reads like a Hollywood movie script. From hunger and deprivation in an Eastern Cape township to hero-worshipped captain of South Africa's rugby team. 

Spotted by his primary school teacher at age 10, the rugby prodigy was taken to the famous African Bombers, and so began his path to sporting greatness.

The nation will drive the Springboks on in Sunday's quarter-final match against hosts Japan, and for Kolisi, now 28, there is the dream of becoming the third South African captain to lift the Webb Ellis Cup.

And yet, the back-row is far more than an elite sportsman. Just ask his old teacher, Eric Songwiqi.

Born to teenage parents, Kolisi endured a tough upbringing in which sport provided one of the few alternatives to a life of crime or drugs. 

"He was from my primary school, Emsengeni Primary, and I took him to the local club, African Bombers. I also coached him there," Songwiqi said on Thursday, from Zwide, near Port Elizabeth.

"Even then, he showed discipline and those leadership qualities. Working with the other boys, they understood one another. There were two other boys who also did well. But Siya as an individual, I could see he would reach the highest point in life in rugby.

"Looking at his attributes and the commitment he showed, I could see that he could make it one day. The dedication and that enthusiasm. He was so passionate about what he was doing."

The young Kolisi was offered a bursary to one of South Africa's most prestigious rugby schools, Grey High in Port Elizabeth, after being spotted at a tournament. In his late teens he moved to Cape Town, home of Western Province and Super Rugby side the Stormers and was handed the captain's armband in February 2017 at the age of 25.

In 2018, he became the Springboks' first black captain in its 126-year history.

Father-of-two Kolisi, pictured above with children from his hometown, hopes more boys from Zwide will follow in his footsteps, and now sponsors the African Bombers and has organised iPads for his old primary school.

Songwiqi treasures a collection of photos of himself with his now famous former pupil and says his hometown is still celebrating the back-row's appointment as Boks captain. 

"When we heard the news, it was an exuberant moment in the Zwide community. Knowing him, and that he was a disciplined boy.

"He has ploughed back into the community, and the school where he played rugby. He is not looking after himself alone.

"He looks after the poorest communities and clubs in Zwide. He is playing a vital role to change the lives of youngsters and players."

 Springboks World Cup winner Joel Stransky is another fan.

"The fact that Siya has had to do it the tough way, and come through extra hardship, is all that more meaningful," said the former fly-half, who kicked the winning drop goal in the 1995 final against the All Blacks, below, and is now part of the TV commentary team in Tokyo.

"I've got to know him a little bit. It's not so much about his background, it's about him as a human being, and he is the most wonderful human being.

"He epitomises the good of our country. And our country has a lot of good. He is a great example to all of us."

 Another ex-Springbok in Tokyo on commentary duty, hooker Hanyani Shimange, said Kolisi is much more than South Africa's captain. "I've always said, if you take rugby away from him, he's a hell of a good guy." 

Shimange, who earned nine test caps between 2004 and 2006, is thrilled by the possibility of seeing Kolisi lift the Webb Ellis Cup.

"You get goosebumps. That moment, if it occurs, and what it would mean to South Africa and world rugby in terms of hope, perseverance, bravery, leadership. Sticking to who you are, not changing your personality, staying humble."

RNS am/js/ns/co

Pictures courtesy of African Bombers