Siya Kolisi completed his rags-to-riches journey from a dusty, poverty-stricken township on the eastern coast of South Africa to World Cup-winning captain on Saturday when he led the Springboks to victory over England.
The first black man to captain the Springboks also became the first black player to raise the Webb Ellis Cup when his team thrashed England 32-12 at Yokohama International Stadium.
Increasingly a symbol for South African unity, Kolisi did not even have a television set when the Springboks, cheered on by Nelson Mandela, won their second title in 2007.
The captain of that team, John Smit, argued this 2019 triumph was even more significant.
“For me, even as a guy who won it, this was a far bigger occasion because of where we’ve come from and where we’re going,” Smit said.
“I always thought, was it too much of a fairytale to see Siya lift that trophy? It couldn’t have come at a better time. This will have a significant impact on our country.”
Kolisi’s improved situation meant that he was able to celebrate the World Cup triumph in Yokohama with his best friend as well as his rugby-playing father.
“We are really proud as South Africans. Not many people gave us a chance,” Kolisi told reporters.
“It was special for all of us. I have never seen as much support as we had from the people back at home. I don’t know if we could have done it without them.
“It has been awesome to have my Dad here to share this with him. And my best friend. An absolutely amazing day for all of us.
“I had a conversation with my Dad. He was just happy. He’s much older than the players but they’re his heroes. I’m grateful I could bring him here.”
Kolisi grew up in one of the few black areas of South Africa where rugby is as popular as soccer. Raised by his paternal grandmother, he did not pick up a rugby ball until he was seven.
His talent was quickly recognised, however, and gave him an opportunity to get away from life on the township streets as he won a bursary to Port Elizabeth’s top boys school Grey High.
“Once I got my opportunity to play, I gave it my best shot,” he said on Saturday.
“When I was 16, I thought, okay, maybe I can make something out of this. Coach Rassie (Erasmus) spotted me at 18 and brought me to the Stormers and I have been working hard since then.”
It was Erasmus, now the Springboks coach, who handed Kolisi the South Africa captain’s armband and he explained why after Saturday’s triumph.
“We had a good chat yesterday when we did the jersey presentation and he had his 50th test match running out in front,” he said.
Erasmus said it was easy for people to get used to hearing stories of hardship and lack of opportunity and to therefore stop fully appreciating them.
“The moment you hear that a lot, you almost get used to it.” he said. “As a team mate or rugby supporter or anybody. But when you sit down and think about it clearly, there are days when Siya went through that.
“He had days when he didn’t have food. He didn’t have shoes to wear. He couldn’t get to school. Here he is as the captain and he has led South Africa to win this Cup. I think that should sum up what Siya is.”
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