Excellence is in the eye of the beholder

When Siya Kolisi holds the Webb Ellis trophy aloft by the ears like true-to-life Rafiki hoisted Simba in the recent Lion King remake, the world will weep at the story of a poor boy from the township pulling himself up by his bootstraps to straddle the world in glory. And while I have absolutely no problems with that narrative, there is a teeny misrepresentation.

There is no such thing as a self-made man.

Kolisi has quite clearly put in the work and deserves every inch of glowing column space dedicated to his achievements and I will probably watch the movie about his life on opening weekend. But there should be no argument that he would have made it to this level because for the 24 years since François Pienaar was inspired to lift the trophy in the style of Rafiki in the original animated Lion King there has been pressure placed on the South African rugby structures to produce black talent eligible for Springbok selection.

[Side note: John Smit raised the cup with one hand when Thabo Mbeki first handed it to him, probably because there was no movie to show him the right way.]

The Springbok team that takes the field in the 2019 Rugby World Cup showpiece is quite clearly a match day 15 that deserves to be there. Makazole Mapimpi has been a long favourite of mine, and I’ve come around on the effectiveness of Cheslin Kolbe given his devastating deployment on the wing – he would be a liability at fullback despite his high ball capabilities. I still feel that Malcolm Marx gives more to the position, but Bongi Mbonambi is one of the best hookers in the country, outright.

A notable exclusion through injury, Trevor Nyakane, would surely have made the squad if not the run on 15 because he is the best tight head we have, so Rassie would’ve comfortably achieved any quota targets on pure merit. That a healthy number of these players came through the Varsity Cup and Mapimpi through the semi-pro club structures also speaks well for the general culture of inclusion that has trickled down from Chester Williams’ (RIP) original 1995 heroics.

That brings me to Siyamthanda Kolisi. His name literally means “we love you” which will create all kinds of redundancies when the Boks do the thing tomorrow. He was born on the 15th anniversary of the Soweto Uprising and made his Springbok debut almost 22 years to the day later after a remarkable rise to prominence.

He is the 61st Captain of the Springboks and the first player of colour to have the honour, and the current team can win without him.

Some countries have talismanic leaders who lift the play of the team by sheer brilliance. Kolisi isn’t that guy. He puts in a good shift, makes his tackles and the coach doesn’t bat an eye when replacing him with a player who can produce the game-winning goods like he did in the semifinal against Wales. But that’s more about the level this Springbok team has reached under Rassie Erasmus than about Kolisi’s failings as a player or leader. He is the emotional heart of this team and his is the story that will be told.

So while Solidarity try and make the quota issue a labour battle in the courts and respected sporting scribes try and force the romantic idea of self-made men and Cinderella stories, let’s spare a thought for the fact that none of this happened easily. Children died in the Soweto Uprisings, Nelson Mandela was imprisoned, we had to endure years of mediocrity from quota players to force coaches and school systems to understand that having a mediocre player of colour is totally fine and won’t affect the overall quality.

Kolisi is one of the best loose forwards in South Africa but there’s nothing spectacular about him. He wouldn’t make my dream international 15, for instance. Hell, he wouldn’t be the first name on my personal Springbok team sheet. But I cannot argue about him starting in the final or being named captain.

I’ll leave you with a final thought. Do you think Willie le Roux would’ve made the starting team in a World Cup final if he was black? I like to think that he would because he adds more to the playing structures than his isolated individual errors take away.

Go Bokke. Make us proud.

Follow me, it will be alright

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