South Africa’s national rugby union team, the Springboks, won the World Cup back on Nov. 2, 2019.
The Springboks’ first black captain, Siya Kolisi, lifted the Webb Ellis trophy and the spirits of his nation, and there was widespread optimism that the most diverse South Africa rugby team ever to take the world’s top prize would do much to bring healing to an often divided nation.
But the Springboks couldn’t get back on the field for 20 months.
Still, South Africa has clung to its world No 1 ranking despite the long pandemic layoff, though several contenders who have played tough matches might now claim they deserve the top spot.
The rusty Springboks finally played a match on July 2, when they lodged a comfortable 40-9 win over Georgia as they begin preparation in earnest for a major challenge this month when the British and Irish Lions squad visits for eight games against South African opposition, ending with three official test matches against the Springboks on July 24, July 31 and August 7.
Some preparation matches are up in the air, because of a coronavirus outbreak in the Springbok camp, including Jacques Nienaber, the new head coach, and flyhalf Handré Pollard. A second match against Georgia scheduled for this past Friday was cancelled.
On the eve of the tour, Kolisi spoke with The New York Times about the Springboks, his background growing up poor in a township outside Port Elizabeth, and off-field activities he has been busy with since the World Cup.
Q: After the long layoff, can the Springboks be prepared to take on the best of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland this summer?
A: Yes, I definitely think so. We’re still working hard, so I think the team will be prepared and ready by the time the tests come. It’s always been a tough series, so I think physically it’s going to be up there, some of the toughest games that we’ll ever have.
Q: After you won the World Cup, you and other members of the team spoke eloquently about how you thought the victory would do a lot to bring the country together. How well do you think this has actually happened?
A: We saw how people were excited when they were watching us play in the World Cup, and how together they were for those moments. But I think we as players were able to do so much more to help during the pandemic. Like after the World Cup, with our foundations, with the work that we do to use our personal brands to help others who are in need during the pandemic. We were able to use some of our kit from the World Cup to raise some funds as the team, but also individually. More people wanted to work with us, and we were able to donate food, donate PPE and do all those kinds of things with people for the good. That was a very important and a huge thing for us to see, that after people were backing us and supporting us during the whole World Cup, we were able to come when they needed us the most, we were able to come and do our part.
Q: After the death of George Floyd in the United States, there were Black Lives Matter protests worldwide. You spoke out and received criticism from some white South Africans who said “all lives matter”. Do you think the message has gotten through?
A: All that I was basically saying is that my dream is for equality for everyone. Not just for me, or people that look like me. Everybody should have a fair playing field. And that’s my biggest fight. And some people don’t hear that. They don’t want to hear what I’m saying. They think I’m putting myself or my race above everybody else. Equality for everyone. That’s my message. It’s always been my message. Imagine how our society or how the world would be if kids woke up in different parts of the world and could dream and just want to be whatever they want to be, that it’s possible for them to wake up and dream to be a doctor, because they have been given the infrastructure around them, and they can see they have reference points — role models. We’ve made it, and they know, “OK, he’s done it, I can also believe I can be that.”
Q: Tell me a bit about that personal journey.
A: I’m saying that for me, I couldn’t dream. I couldn’t dream to be me right now when I was young. But I had help. I was helped by my community. I didn’t have food every day, so my grandmother would go to neighbours for a cup of mealie-meal and a cup of rice to just make me full. And sometimes I would go to bed just having sugar water. And that was just life. The mentality in the hood, or the township or the poor areas, is just survival.
Q: You must have quite a few stories to share about your upbringing…
A: I’m releasing my book in September. I talk about my life in the book; a little about rugby and everything else. Because someone wrote a book about me without my permission. So I’m doing my own book. It’s called “Rise”. It’s from my Mom’s name. In Xhosa her name was Phakama, and that means “rise”.
Q: Do you see yourself as a role model to South African youth?
A: No, but some do see me like that. But I do see myself as a role model to my daughter and my son and my young brother and sister. And that’s who I want to inspire every single day because I believe if I can set a great example for them, it will obviously lead to others outside, but that’s the first and foremost people that I want to make sure that I inspire and that I live a life that I want them to be proud of. I want them to look at me and say you know what, I want to be like my dad. I try to keep it small.
Full article available at https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/11/sports/rugby/qa-rugby-siya-kolisi-south-africa.html