Cape Town - So often the best success stories in this world - and not just in sport - are triggered by a slice of luck.
You could say that applies to Siya Kolisi, who will mark his landmark 50th cap for South Africa by fittingly leading them onto the park in Yokohama on Saturday (11:00 SA time) for the doubly goose-pimply occasion of the World Cup final against England.
It is wonderful both for the player and his well-subscribed flock of devotees that the timing has turned out so perfect: it is just another reason, as if he even needed it, for him to lead by fired-up example in the showpiece.
It also serves as a further reflection of the deft player management of head coach Rassie Erasmus, who might well have had the milestone at least somewhere in his mind as he gave Kolisi a particularly generous allocation of tournament appearances to ensure he would stand on 49 caps ahead of the grand climax.
While partly motivated by the need to restore him to optimal sharpness after a fairly long-term knee injury, Erasmus has handed his skipper roles in all six of the Boks’ RWC lead-up games to the final - five times in his lead-out capacity and once as a substitute, for 27 second-half minutes in the Namibia clash.
Further buoyed by the presence at the match on Saturday of his father, making his first trip abroad, the 28-year-old from humble beginnings in Zwide will reflect - though the cares of the final itself naturally require his overwhelming attention - on a journey to his 50th Bok appearance that began in less than orthodox circumstances for him on June 15, 2013 (a day short of his 22nd birthday) against Scotland at the relative Test backwater of Nelspruit.
In short, the misfortune of Arno Botha, then a loose-forward wunderkind of the domestic scene as well, turned into an unintended blessing for Kolisi.
No doubt anticipating a measured debut off the bench much later in the contest, the Stormers-based youngster had to instead strip off his tracksuit with rare haste in the third minute as Bulls flank dynamo Botha wincingly tore knee ligaments without a Scottish hand being laid on him at the time - his leg had simply buckled in one of those freak events as he changed angle.
It was an awful blow to a player (teamed up in starting loosie alliance that day with Marcell Coetzee and Pierre Spies) who had starred on maiden appearance against Italy only a week earlier; now also 28, Botha has never played for his country subsequently and campaigns abroad these days, currently for Munster.
But the manner in which Kolisi stepped into the emergency void, contrastingly served as a strong springboard to his rise and rise for the national cause.
On a day where the Boks collectively were off-colour for large tracts of the match, and at one point trailed 6-17 before the concerned Mbombela populace, a bushy-tailed Kolisi - left no real room for nerves, let’s face it - ended up being almost indisputably the premier SA player in a come-from-behind 30-17 triumph.
My own observation at the time on Sport24, where I gave him top individual score among Boks starters and subs alike of 7.5/10, was as follows: “Suddenly pitched into battle with barely time to touch his toes, yet composure and confidence (came) so quickly to the fore.
“Fantastic physicality, plenty of tackles, and purposeful ball-carries ... including one memorable, weaving surge in the last quarter.”
That stirring debut had come in a match begun by three Boks who will be under Kolisi’s charge on Saturday’s seismic 2019 occasion: his friend Eben Etzebeth, Willie le Roux and Tendai Mtawarira.
Yet his showing still wasn’t a ticket to any immediate, regular fast track into the Bok starting XV for the Grey High School product, as already more seasoned figures like Schalk Burger, Francois Louw and Willem Alberts largely hogged the flank berths for a substantial period onward under Heyneke Meyer’s often enough very credible tenure as Bok coach.
All of Kolisi’s next dozen appearances were off the bench, including two (Japan at Brighton, Samoa at Birmingham) in the last World Cup, in 2015.
But when Meyer quit after steering the Boks to bronze at that RWC, the elevation of Kolisi’s earlier Super Rugby coach in Cape Town, Allister Coetzee, to the head coaching role for two turbulent years did, at least, have the effect of seeing the player routinely entrusted with starting roles - even if leadership would remain elusive as Warren Whiteley and Adriaan Strauss were the major beneficiaries of “Toetie’s” trust in that capacity.
It was Erasmus, however, who took the historic step, when he inherited a then lurching Bok cause, of immediately making Kolisi his skipper - the first regular black African one.
He said in announcing the appointment: “I like him because he is humble, he is quiet, and the way he is playing … he is not flashy.”
In a clear signal that the coach, who has steadfastly ever since deployed him in the No 6 “poacher” role, felt he could productively utilise the hybrid qualities of Kolisi (physically, he falls somewhere between an open-side and blindside flanker), he added: “With the breakdown work he is doing in attack, the carries and cleanouts, he is playing almost like a blindsider.”
Kolisi has won 12 of the 19 matches he’s led the country in since mid-2018, for a 63.15 percent record, which places him not far behind the two captains of trophy-winning SA causes at the World Cup, Francois Pienaar of the 1995 side (68.96 percent, 29 matches in charge), and John Smit of the 2007 champions (65.66, 83 matches at the helm).
Of his total of 49 Test appearances, 31 have been wins (65.30 percent), with two draws and 16 reverses.
Siyamthanda Kolisi is guaranteed of a sharp vault to legendary status, for a gamut of reasons, if his 50th cap sees the Boks prevail on one of those occasions that doesn’t present itself to a rugby player every day ...
15 Elliot Daly, 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Manu Tuilagi, 12 Owen Farrell (captain), 11 Jonny May, 10 George Ford, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Sam Underhill, 6 Tom Curry, 5 Courtney Lawes, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Kyle Sinckler, 2 Jamie George, 1 Mako Vunipola
Substitutes: 16 Luke Cowan-Dickie, 17 Joe Marler, 18 Dan Cole, 19 George Kruis, 20 Mark Wilson, 21 Ben Spencer, 22 Henry Slade, 23 Jonathan Joseph
15 Willie le Roux, 14 Cheslin Kolbe, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Handre Pollard, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Siya Kolisi (captain), 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 Tendai Mtawarira
Substitutes: 16 Malcolm Marx, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Vincent Koch, 19 RG Snyman, 20 Franco Mostert, 21 Francois Louw, 22 Herschel Jantjies, 23 Frans Steyn
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