GAUTENG, SOUTH AFRICA – After 127 years, 478 tests and 60 white captains, Siyamthanda ‘Siya’ Kolisi will open a new chapter in South African rugby on Saturday when he leads the team against England.
The 26-year-old captain and flanker of the Western Stormers franchise in Cape Town is set to be the first black test skipper of a traditional world rugby powerhouse.
Injuries to captain Warren Whiteley and stand-in Eben Etzebeth created a leadership void, and new coach Rassie Erasmus opted for soft-spoken, media-shy Kolisi in a three-player contest.
“I like him,” says the coach. “He is quiet, he is humble, he is nice and physical. I am really excited about what Siya can offer to us.”
There is a touch of irony, though, about his selection as captain for the three-test series, starting at Ellis Park in Johannesburg and followed by matches in Bloemfontein and Cape Town.
Kolisi, by his own admission, played better rugby last year than in recent months, yet was surprisingly overlooked for the captaincy by then coach Allister Coetzee, a black.
Now, with his Super Rugby form patchy, the forward born in coastal city Port Elizabeth has got the nod from Erasmus, a white.
Erasmus insists Kolisi was not chosen because of his colour amid constant government pressure to deliver a national rugby team that better reflects a population that is 92 percent black.
“I have always known Siya as a great player and a great leader — the fact that he will become the first black captain of the Springboks is definitely just a bonus.”
An agreement has been struck between the national rugby body and the government that 50 percent of the team at the 2019 World Cup in Japan will be black.
Seven of the 15 starters against England are going to be black, provided tighthead prop Trevor Nyakane passes a late fitness test on a rib injury.
South Africans will cheer Kolisi on to Ellis Park and then pray that he and his green-and-gold warriors can triumph over a team ranked third in the world, four places higher than their hosts.
Since coming third behind New Zealand and Australia at the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England, South Africa have become a virtual laughing stock on the international stage.
Arch rivals New Zealand twice scored 57 points against the Springboks, who also suffered a first home loss to Ireland and first away defeats by Italy and Argentina.
“We all know things have been a little disappointing for our rugby lately, but the will to improve is there and that excites me,” was the upbeat message from Erasmus.
“England will provide a stern test for us, but we are playing at home and this is where the foundations for a revival have to be laid.”
A major problem for the Springboks has been defending lofted kicks and Erasmus hopes new wingers, Sibusiso Nkosi and Aphiwe Dyantyi, can do better than their predecessors.
The third new cap is lock R.G. Snyman, a product of the same Northern Bulls factory that produced legendary second-row pair Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield.
South Africa selected a completely different team from that which lost 22-20 to Wales in Washington last Saturday, and England coach Eddie Jones also rang the changes as he seeks to stop the rot.
Only seven of the starting 15 who fell 24-15 to Ireland at Twickenham last March will begin in Johannesburg, including new captain Owen Farrell, then the fly-half and now at inside center.
Injuries and a need for rest forced wholesale changes as Australian Jones seeks to snap a three-match losing streak having won 24 of his first 25 tests in charge.
He appreciates the magnitude of the task as England chase a first series victory in South Africa after five failed attempts.
“We want to do something special on this tour and the players are all incredibly excited about the challenge and the opportunity we have.
“Ellis Park is the spiritual homeland of South African rugby and the Springboks play to another level on that ground.”
Few non-South African coaches know more about the Springboks than Jones, an assistant to head coach Jake White when the country won the 2007 Rugby World Cup in Paris.