A rousing performance by a Siya Kolisi-inspired Springbok back row bodes well for a challenging 2017 Test season, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Over the course of his life, Kolisi has endured more trials and tribulations than most. The past 12 months, however, have been both special and challenging.
Kolisi broke down with a season-ending injury in the Super Rugby playoff against the Chiefs last July. The break from rugby allowed him to spend more time with his new wife, son and adopted half-siblings.
Being a father and husband forced Kolisi to grow up. In a frank interview with SA Rugby magazine earlier this year – shortly after he had been handed the Stormers captaincy – Kolisi said there was a link between being a leader at home and being a leader at his franchise.
Fast forward to the present where Kolisi is one of the leaders in a new-look Bok team. This past Saturday, Kolisi delivered an inspirational performance as both a senior player and individual to help the Boks score a series-clinching win over France in Durban.
It’s worth reflecting on what Kolisi said in that interview earlier this year. While injury forced Kolisi to miss nine of the Boks’ 12 Tests in 2016, he was all too aware of the team’s failures and what people were saying about South Africa’s once proud aura.
Kolisi, in his capacity as a Stormers player at the time, stated that it was the duty of all South African rugby players to alter perceptions in 2017. And when he said it, you could tell that he wanted to make a difference with his own performances for the Stormers and Boks.
Two Tests into the 2017 season, and Kolisi is making good on his promise. What’s more, the Boks as a collective are working to restore a physical reputation that was once the envy of the rugby world.
The Boks cannot erase a 2016 season that witnessed eight defeats in 12 Tests. Coach Allister Coetzee is wrong to suggest that the past year should be completely forgotten.
The 2016 season should always be remembered. Indeed, how else are future Bok coaches and players going to avoid the same mistakes?
I bumped into Kolisi in Umhlanga a couple of days after the first Test against France. The Bok flanker told me that he was still feeling the effects of a bruising encounter at Loftus Versfeld.
A couple of days later, I learned that Kolisi and his roommate Eben Etzebeth were both battling flu. Neither player showed any sign of weakness, though, when I saw them for the official team photograph on the eve of the second Test.
A day later, Kolisi delivered arguably his best performance in a Bok jersey. Some might point to his deft touches on attack as significant (he scored one try and created two more in the second Test against France). However, what highlighted his coming of age as a Test player – and what suggested that this Bok team may just have what it takes to restore a proud physical aura – was his defence and work at the breakdown.
Sore ribs and flu be damned. Kolisi and the Bok pack had a job to do on Saturday, and they did it to brutal effect. It’s the kind of story one tends to associate with a proud Bok narrative that’s over 100 years old.
That said, we need to acknowledge the role of fate in the contest at Kings Park. The Boks went into the second Test with a back row that lacked balance. That loose trio may not have been as effective had Oupa Mohoje remained on the field of play for most of the contest.
Mohoje was never going to be able to play the role of a Duane Vermeulen at No 7, and that lack of go-forward on attack and stopping power on defence was always going to compromise other members of the loose trio, namely Kolisi and Warren Whiteley. Indeed, this much was evident in the early stages of the second Test, when France dominated the collisions and breakdowns.
When Mohoje left the field with a concussion, the complexion of the game changed. Jean-Luc du Preez was outstanding when he came off the bench at Loftus, and was again influential when he came off the bench at Kings Park. Other players in the pack certainly contributed, but it has to be said that the somewhat fortunate early injection of Du Preez lent the hosts a patent edge at the tackle point.
At the post-match press conference, Kolisi said that Du Preez is one of those players – in the mould of a Bismarck du Plessis, a Schalk Burger, or a Vermeulen – who will never need to be asked to get stuck in at the breakdowns and collisions. Aggression is simply their default setting.
Mohoje will miss the third Test against France due to concussion. That injury should allow Kolisi, Du Preez and Whiteley an opportunity to build some momentum as a combination ahead of the all-important Rugby Championship.
It’s a combination that has great potential in the sense that all three players bring something different to the unit. Vermeulen may also be fit for that tournament, and it would suit South Africa’s purposes to go into such a demanding competition with two bruising blindsides, players who can dominate the collisions and free up the likes of Kolisi and Whiteley to play a different sort of game.
Photo: Anne Laing/HM Images