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Losing Siya Kolisi is a dire blow for Boks

By Daniel Gallan
DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA - SEPTEMBER 24: Siya Kolisi captain of South Africa and Jacques Nienaber coach of South Africa react after The Rugby Championship match between South Africa and Argentina at Hollywoodbets Kings Park on September 24, 2022 in Durban, South Africa. (Photo by Darren Stewart/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

“Remember you cannot look at the sun or death for very long.”

Surrounded by dazzling colours and shape shifting images, David Hockney’s bodiless voice speaks to you through the void.

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The British artist’s show at Lightroom in London’s King Cross is aptly named. ‘Bigger & Closer (not smaller and further away)’ is a bewildering assault on the senses. It forces you to engage with everything, everywhere, all at once and yet it’s impossible to hold a single frame in your vision for more than a moment.

But as your senses spiral, you’re able to latch onto a poignant metaphor for the uncomfortable truth facing South African rugby and the sport’s most prestigious event.

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Both the Springboks and the World Cup will likely have to get on without the presence of Siya Kolisi in France later this year. An injury to his right knee, which saw him hobble off the field in his final appearance for the Sharks on Saturday, has been labelled ‘significant’ by the franchise’s medical team.

Damage to both his anterior cruciate ligaments as well as his meniscus means surgery is needed. But that would then sideline him beyond the World Cup start date. The best hope is for a miracle.

Kolisi’s absence is almost inconceivable. Like staring at the sun or contemplating the eternal state of death, it’s been difficult to wrap my head around the fact that another man will lead the Boks throughout their title defence.

I know what you’re thinking. The above sentiment is wildly hyperbolic. No one has died. And though Kolisi may be a star, our world doesn’t revolve around him. But let’s consider a few truths.

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Since 2018, when Rassie Erasmus ignored the critics who cried ‘quota’ and made a black man his captain, Kolisi has been the beating heart of South African rugby.

His presence at the front of the team was a sign that the Springboks had found a new lease on life. Let us not forget that this team was once a symbol of pain and death to the majority of the country during apartheid. And even more than Nelson Mandela’s rebranding mission after democracy, Kolisi was the physical manifestation of this change.

He has always been unapologetically African. After his inaugural outing – a sensational 42-39 comeback win in Johannesburg – he was pitch-side, singing with the recently formed Gwijo Squad who themselves have recalibrated our idea of what constitutes a South African rugby fan.

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In press conferences he speaks isiXhosa and has used his harrowing past as a platform to promote a better future for all. Alongside his wife, Rachel, he has called on South African men to actively combat the nation’s staggering rape and gender based violence statistics.

He is the best of us. His narrative is a microcosm of the country he represents with honour. A life in politics post-retirement wouldn’t be implausible.

This World Cup was potentially our last date with Kolisi. He’s off to Paris to earn the fortune he deserves with Racing 92 in the Top 14. We’ll be watching his Instagram feed and smile as he walks the Champs-Élysées with his family, but there was always the chance that he’d never don the green and gold again.

His injury might deprive us of a proper goodbye. Like the sudden loss of a loved one, there’a a cruelty in that. Perhaps this is why we cannot look directly at the news feeds and Twitter takes. Maybe if we avert our gaze, if we occupy ourselves with his expansive highlight reel like a collection of home videos we might pretend that everything is as it should be.

Speaking of highlights reels, Kolisi’s loss impacts the Springboks on the pitch as much as it does the rest of us beyond the boundary. There is no better No 6 in South African rugby. That maybe wasn’t the case when he was first picked but now there can be no doubt. Replacing him could be as agonising as stating directly into the sun on a clear Highveld day.

The hot-stepping sevens convert, Kwagga Smith, is the closest match but he lacks the same grunt in the tight channels. Jasper Wiese could switch from the back of the scrum to make room for Duane Vermeulen’s return to the starting XV, but the Leicester Tigers battering ram doesn’t possess the same passing and handling skills as Kolisi.

Rynhardt Elstadt, Deon Fourie, Marcell Coetzee, Hacjivah Dayimani, Marco van Staden, Jaco Kriel, Vincent Tshituka, Elrigh Louw, Phepsi Buthelezi and Sikhumbuzo Notshe have all been nominated. The loose forward production line in South Africa is as healthy as it’s ever been and yet every candidate comes up short on at least one variable. Factor in the leadership credentials of South Africa’s most influential sports figure for a generation and everyone else is diminished to mere planets orbiting a much greater celestial orb.

The truth is no one can replace Kolisi. Jacques Nienaber won’t be short of options when he picks his captain or starting No 6. He will recognise that his best shot at glory will be to play the hand he’s been dealt rather than yearn for the ace that’s been snatched from his grasp. Still, in his quiet moments, the Springboks coach will curse his rotten luck.

Not that he or anyone else will be able to escape the searing heat still emanating from his burnt-out star. Every press conference between now and South Africa’s final game at the World Cup will make mention of Kolisi. “How is the team coping without him?” “Has he spoken to the group?” “What did you make of the change in tactics down the trams?” “How’s the new documentary coming along?”

That’s the thing about athletes who transcend their sport. Even when they’re gone they leave a long shadow.

And Kolisi would not just be a loss for the men in green and their devoted fanbase. Rugby is fighting a culture war on multiple fronts. No country or region has been untouched. The sport needs protagonists who understand that their role extends past their remit of scoring tries and making tackles.

More than Antoine Dupont, Maro Itoje, Beauden Barrett or Johnny Sexton, Kolisi is the face of rugby. He has leaned into his ambassadorial role. He has embraced his celebrity status and the social responsibility he carries. Like Hockney’s colourful chaos, his story has been all encompassing, surrounding our game with a dazzling array of colour and meaning.

All we can do now is hope to look upon it again.

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