Springboks

Clear Kolisi fog … he’s a great ‘six’!

2017-06-19 13:00
Siya Kolisi (Getty)

Cape Town – Siya Kolisi will be at an inviting near-peak of his rugby career – aged 28 -- when the Japan-staged 2019 World Cup comes along.

He could enter and then potentially perform in it as a genuine superstar, particularly if he keeps producing showings even close to his thunderous, illuminatingly multi-pronged effort for South Africa against France at Kings Park on Saturday.

But there’s an “if” attached to that theory, and I will come to it.

The Test was his 18th, of which only five have been starts, and almost undoubtedly his best yet.

He was a bundle of energy in the nearest he came to emulating Saturday, which was also his unexpectedly extended debut for the Boks off the bench against Scotland at Mbombela Stadium in 2013.

Then, an almost as raw Arno Botha, earning his second national appearance, tore knee ligaments as early as the fourth minute and Kolisi deputised with great aplomb at blindside flank in a loose trio featuring Marcell Coetzee at six and Pierre Spies in the eighth-man role.

It is at No 7 that the Zwide-born customer has more customarily been stationed at all levels subsequently, although he has switched between the two flank berths and it is difficult not to suspect that it has been detrimental in some respects to his development, not to mention consistency of performance.

Personally, I have long been extremely adamant that his best deployment is on the open side, where there is more scope for his broadest skill set to thrive, even if he has publicly said on a few occasions that he doesn’t want to be pigeon-holed as an out-and-out “fetcher”.

That is fair enough, but with a stronger emphasis these days on multiple players – and not solely forwards, either – being increasingly trained and empowered to get involved in the all-important ball-stealing function, the role of the old-style, low-centre-of-gravity mole has evolved or even been rendered partially obsolete anyway.

It is why now overseas-based co-Springboks like Schalk Burger and Coetzee have been able to operate with some comfort in either flank berth, whether in Tests or Super Rugby and the provincial game. (Burger, of course, has also shown an aptitude at times for the cares of No 8 in the later phase of his especially distinguished rugby life.)

But there are several reasons why, I would argue, Kolisi should be nudged closer to regular activity – thus only enhancing his comfort and equally importantly knowledge in the role – as an open-sider.

For starters, he does not have quite the physical hallmarks that have become renowned with luminary occupants of the Bok blindside berth over a period stretching back many years.

The sort of blind-sider South Africa – and several other major countries -- have generally favoured since the advent of full professionalism, and even a bit before it if you add in figures like Theuns Stofberg and Gert Smal, is a man both physically and athletically capable of alternating as a suitably robust second-rower if necessary.

In post-isolation times, forceful and suitably tall-timber specimens deployed by the Boks in the role have included Ian Macdonald, Andre Venter, Juan Smith, Willem Alberts and Danie Rossouw.

They would not mind, in most instances, being branded earthy, uncompromising beasts who suck opposition defenders (sometimes well more than one) in on the carry, do grunt-laden donkeywork more commonly than the “glamour” stuff, and provide notable back-of-lineout presences as well.

Kolisi, with his slightly more modest 102kg frame and some 1.88m, will never quite be that brand of No 7; certainly he is seldom, if ever, spoken of as a viable emergency lock option, for instance.

Besides, if you try to make him a more dedicated blind-sider, you are also, more than a little sadly, neutralising several of his more open play-linked attributes demonstrated so inspiringly on Saturday.

Who wants Kolisi snarled up too much in heavy traffic – not for a second am I suggesting he would or does shirk any responsibilities there -- when the rangier aspects to his game came into such wonderful focus in the Durban Test?

It is not as though the player lacks relish or ability for closer-quarters grappling; far from it. He is tigerishly committed, and muscular in his own right.

But with the greater freedom for expression granted by his role at No 6 against the French on Saturday, we also saw him produce one of the most complete displays possible by a modern open-sider.

I would go so far as to say there has been no more dynamic showing by a Bok in the No 6 shirt since Heinrich Brussow – granted, a slightly different animal in bodily make-up -- was such a thorn in the All Blacks’ collective side during the consecutive home Tri-Nations victories over them in 2009 at Bloemfontein and Durban.

Kolisi did everything on Saturday: he stole balls both on the deck and while on his feet, tackled or helped halt mauling Frenchmen, but he also served fresh notice that he has a better turn of speed in free space than some of us may have realised, and a wonderful pair of hands as shown by some tricky, admirable pick-ups near his toes.

Frankly, there were some blessings in disguise when Oupa Mohoje had the misfortune of leaving the park early through injury, because by acquiring the more direct-by-nature qualities of Jean-Luc du Preez as replacement blind-sider, both Kolisi and No 8 and captain Warren Whiteley were agreeably freed up to play more dynamic, constructive personal games.

Balance to the Bok loose trio? Voila, as if by flick of a switch, it was suddenly there for all to see.

It would be utterly foolish, I contend, to mess with that equilibrium. Kolisi at open-side, Whiteley eight and any one of a barn-door Du Preez, Ruan Ackermann or maybe even still Duane Vermeulen in the No 7 post is the way forward, for crying out loud.

Jaco Kriel? At least for the foreseeable future, great legs to be able to summon off the splinters as a game advances.

My view: Kolisi is back on course to become a world standout rugby player.

But that’s if, however, Saturday’s abundant evidence has been enough to persuade his various coaches, as I believe it should, that the fog has cleared: at least by near-unique SA definition, he IS a six!

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

Read more on:    springboks  |  siya kolisi  |  rugby
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