On a crisp Port Elizabeth morning, 14-year-old Mike Willemse stood gawping pitchside, utterly transfixed by a schoolboy monster, claret gushing from his face and fury burning in his eyes.
As a junior pupil at the storied Grey High, Willemse was expected to brandish the school flag and roar on the older students in their ferociously contested matches.
South African schools rugby is a ruthless proving ground. Enormous teenage specimens, not all of them purely the product of extreme toil and fortunate genetics, lock horns on paddocks as hard as granite against the backdrop of unyielding pride and tradition that dates back decades.
There was one boy who stood above them all for Willemse. It was on that morning that the young hooker first laid eyes on Siya Kolisi, the snarling township urchin who would become a World Cup-winning captain.
Kolisi was not yet 17, but already there was an avalanche of hype building around this back row phenomenon. The kid was a colossus, a schoolboy encased in the body of a giant.
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“Siya was captain of the under-16 As and he got hit in the mouth and he was bleeding,” Willemse told RugbyPass. “I just remember him grabbing the ball and not even caring, bouncing guys and carrying on.
“He completely dominated, brushing through players like they weren’t even there. He’d come on for the last 15 minutes to win games for us. Honestly, we’d have people from other schools coming to watch our games instead of their own teams just because of Siya. He was incredible.”
Since the Springboks’ glorious triumph in Japan, the astonishing story of Kolisi has been told and retold. The flanker had been reared in obscene poverty, left school aged 10 to look after his ailing grandmother, suffered the most heinous bereavements and spoke not a word of English before winning a bursary to study and play at Grey.
? Kolisi: "We won the Webb Ellis Cup for ordinary South Africans and to be able to present the trophy to them, has been phenomenal.”
— Springboks (@Springboks) November 11, 2019
His impact, even in those days, went well beyond what he did on the pitch. “Because he had played and done so well for so long, the whole school respected him,” explained Willemse. “He was a prefect, house captain and whatnot.
“And also just being a player of colour of that stature at that time was very inspiring for a lot of people. The way he did things was inspiring for everyone. Through that, he gained so much respect and he handled it well. That’s why he was a leader.
“Everyone was in awe of him. He was a seriously good player and a natural-born leader from the get-go. He made his first-team debut at grade ten, so he was playing three years above his age. You don’t often hear of that in South African schools rugby.
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“The way he dominated the schoolboy rugby scene is what people talk about sometimes more than how he is playing now. He was probably the best schoolboy rugby player anyone had ever seen.
“I only really got to know him very well after school because at school you stay in your age groups. He was my dorm prefect and often you don’t really build a tight connection with your prefect. They instil discipline and that is what he did very well.”
After their school days, Willemse and Kolisi played together with the Stormers and became close friends. The Edinburgh hooker has heaps of mates in Kolisi’s group of immortals. In his days at Newlands and with the Southern Kings, he played alongside Steven Kitshoff, Makazole Mapimpi, Duane Vermeulen, Bongi Mbonambi, Cheslin Kolbe, Lukhanyo Am and a pile more besides.
The answer that so many online rugby fans have been seeking… exactly what has happened to the lid of the Webb Ellis Cup on the Springboks' trophy tour?https://t.co/21IMWKJcnI
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 12, 2019
On the morning of the World Cup final, Edinburgh were in Treviso preparing for a PRO14 match against Benetton. That didn’t stop the hulking South African contingent threatening to reduce the team hotel to rubble as the hammering unfolded – not least because their coach, Richard Cockerill, is typecast as the very depiction of the pugnacious Englishman.
“They thought after the All Blacks game they had already won it. But the whole of South Africa just had a quiet confidence about us,” said Willemse.
“It was life-changing for them and for SA as a whole. What Rassie Erasmus has done and the way the players have bought into what he was trying to do was seriously special. You can see the determination to stick to that plan and do damage with it.”
— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) November 2, 2019
Compared to the horrors of Kolisi’s upbringing, Willemse has not seen true hardship. But in a pure rugby sense, he has known extreme deprivation. For four seasons, some as captain, he grafted for the Kings, a team hopelessly handicapped by its meagre budget, ramshackle infrastructure and the bruising annual poaching of its top assets.
After being booted out of Super Rugby in 2017, they and the Cheetahs found a home in the PRO14. The Kings have won only four games out of 48 since.
In Willemse’s time, they had few of the modern tools that professional teams regard as a given – no GPS units, and only a handful of backroom staff. During pre-season, their search for a new head coach became so compromised by leaks, controversy and unseemly public malcontent that it had to be aborted.
— Michael Willemse (@MikeyWillemse_2) April 26, 2019
“The scary thing about it is that because you know you don’t have the gear and the support staff all of the teams over here do, the minute something goes wrong, it’s so easy to look for excuses,” explained Willemse.
“It was so easy to look elsewhere and not at ourselves. We were almost mentally oppressed. As much as we were saying we could do it, I don’t think we really believed we could. That was the biggest struggle.
“You’re losing games week in, week out. It’s tough to try and get guys up for it. You’ve got to take it down a whole lot of levels and look at the smaller things and be positive about things you did well on the field.”
There were no chartered planes for the Kings squad on their tours of the north. In fact, the travel itineraries often read like extracts from Christopher Columbus’ diary, leaving players stiff and exhausted on the eve of matches.
“You’re leaving on the Tuesday to play on the Saturday, flying from Port Elizabeth to Johannesburg, Johannesburg to Istanbul, Istanbul to Heathrow, and from there you’re either flying to Scotland or Ireland or bussing it to Wales.
“You couldn’t train the next day. You almost lost three or four days of training. We’d have a captain’s run to try and freshen up and then you have got to play. I don’t care what you say, you can’t be as physically up for it in those circumstances all the time.
Sometimes victory will take a while, but it'll come?
— PRO14 RUGBY (@PRO14Official) November 11, 2019
“We tried as best as we could, we tried to get decent enough hotels with pools and saunas to make an effort with recovery, but you can only do so much before fatigue sets in. A lot of our games we were up for it in the first half and come the last 40 we were completely off our feet.”
Willemse is better for the chaos he endured but grateful that it is now behind him. In Edinburgh, the hooker has joined a cleverly assembled squad with a mountain of depth and designs on the PRO14 play-offs.
After winning four of their first six league matches, they begin their European Challenge Cup voyage in Agen this Friday, before Bordeaux-Begles come to Murrayfield a week later. The fact that Edinburgh are competing in the second tier having scalped Montpellier and Toulon and reached the giddying heights of the Champions Cup quarter-finals last season is a trifle embarrassing.
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But the group Cockerill has built this time around is far better equipped to compete on two fronts. With Matt Scott and Mark Bennett fit and flourishing in midfield, Edinburgh are finding extra gears in attack, the pack is rumbling around with its typical venom, and the World Cup contingent are being steadily filtered back into contention.
“Edinburgh weren’t as attack-minded last year as they are now. There’s real excitement about our attack, our counterattack,” Willemse said. “Our backs are really making an impact on the game and we know from previous seasons how good the pack is. That’s what Richard expects and demands from us.
“The pack really grinds a lot harder than anyone else in training and rightly so, because you’re doing a lot more than anyone else on the field.
“We’ve got ourselves in a good position and we’ve yet to reach our full potential. Now that the internationals are making their way back into the team, we’ve created so much depth that it’s really exciting – we can hopefully make a claim to play-offs and go further from there.”
WATCH: RugbyPass Rugby Explorer takes a trek through South African rugby in Cape Town and Port Elizabeth
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