Name a famous place or a relevant face and Siya Kolisi has been there or seen that in the frenetic month and a half following the Springboks’ memorable turn at the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan. Anfield, Monaco, Brooklyn and beyond. Kevin Durant, Jürgen Klopp, Didier Drogba, playing “tennis” with Roger Federer and the like.
Though he insists it is a team game, he has become the fascinating face of the victory, his rags-to-rugby-royalty tale a source of inspiration for many.
“I am still the same person I was last year. I just have new energy, new confidence. I want to inspire others, because that feeling is still in me, and I want to pass it on. There is a lot of work to be done and there are a lot of people in South Africa who need help. I believe that I must do my bit, because I also came from those communities. I want to help.”
He has broken bread with the rich and rubbed shoulders with the richly talented, feted as an inspiring symbol of sporting endeavour. It would have been easy to let all of that – and it is an awful lot – go to his head, but he is happily surrounded by uncompromising colleagues.
“Damian [de Allende] will tell me straight, ‘Siya, you are out of line, you are not working hard enough.’ Rugby is the one sport where you can get humbled very quickly. If you don’t perform, people will quickly forget what you did,” said Kolisi, as he admitted to feeling relieved at being back in the office, working hard to get back to peak physical condition.
The boy from Zwide who figured he would tackle life and hunger with a rugby dream is the latest international superstar signing for sports and entertainment management company Roc Nation. “They are helping me with commercial stuff. I did say that if there are opportunities for me to be an ambassador, we must always try and get that company to give something back to South Africa. I will always try and help people who are disadvantaged,” he said simply.
Kolisi has already started that work, breaking ground on a rugby field that his foundation is creating in Mbekweni township in Paarl. He knows what it was like growing up without the means to access sport, and that rugby field is just the first sprout of the access and opportunity he hopes will mushroom where it is needed most.
Big brands lining up for Kolisi magic
His association with Adidas has seen the sportswear brand donate more than R400 000 to the Kolisi Foundation, from the proceeds of a jacket inspired by the rugby player. And now his alignment with Roc Nation is a match made in representative heaven.
The company was built on the lyrics of a ghetto upbringing for rap royalty Shawn Carter, better known as Jay-Z, who sold drugs as a youngster trying to survive on the tough streets of New York City. Where Carter turned to rap, Kolisi turned to rugby. But their paths to the top are not that different.
Kolisi joins luminaries such as basketball player Kyrie Irving, footballer Kevin de Bruyne and boxer Andre Ward on the Roc Nation Sport roster, and the likes of musicians Rihanna, Alicia Keys and Meek Mill in the wider Roc family. He is in elite company and the magnitude of his management deal could blow him into another galaxy of opportunities and influence.
But for now, the South African captain has unfinished business at home. “It’s a very emotional year for a lot of us. It’s our last year at Newlands, so it is tough for a lot of us,” Kolisi said of the final season at one of the most storied venues in world rugby.
Turning down massive money
He could have headed for easy millions in Japan, where he already has commercial interests with Panasonic, and charmed an entire nation. He could also have earned pounds, or fistfuls of euros in France, where his uncompromising style of ball-carrying and relentless tackling would have found many a happy home.
Or, like Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira, he could have helped spark the rugby revolution on American soil and been closer to his Roc Nation stable. Not yet, insists Kolisi. Not just yet.
“I have never won a title here. That [the Rugby World Cup] was my first title, so winning here is my drive for this year,” he said by way of explanation. “Some guys have to leave, like Chessie [Cheslin Kolbe] did to get the opportunity. But I really believe in what is happening in South Africa. In future, hopefully we will have a whole lot more people staying,” he added.
At 28 years old, Kolisi said he has time on his hands, and there are still massive mountains to climb with the Springboks and the Stormers.
The British and Irish Lions will turn up in a big way in 2021, with revenge thick in their nostrils. And Kolisi wants to be front and centre for that unique spectacle because he will not be part of another Lions visit, not as a player anyway. But he did admit that the reality of the potential earnings put to him presented their own challenges.
“It was tough, I won’t lie,” he said of the lure of earning millions abroad. “We are all rugby players and we all look after our families. But for me, I believe that there is so much more to do in South African rugby and that I can add value by playing here. I can’t do the changes I want to make in my community by being elsewhere.”
It is a heck of a commitment, one that has been undertaken by several other Boks-office stars in the Cape.
“The buy-in and enthusiasm of the returning Springboks has been amazing,” said Stormers coach John Dobson. “To a man, they all turned down bigger offers elsewhere in order to stay and see through the journey that they started here at Western Province and Newlands. This guy,” he said, turning to Kolisi, “he’s with Jay-Z and Kanye West, he’s in Hong Kong and at a Bundesliga benefit game and all this stuff. But he is back in training, and the energy from all of them has been incredible and uplifting for the whole group. It is a testament to them as individuals.”
Newlands’ last hurrah
The creaking Newlands has seen many a false dawn, before hope burns away like the cloudy tablecloth when the sun comes up over the the iconic mountain standing guard over the ground. This year, however, there is a sense of belief that hasn’t been there before. There is a finality to things and a frank realisation that this group of players will never again have the chance to take the southern hemisphere franchise trophy on a tour around their true home if they don’t do it this year.
“I would really love to win a title with the Stormers. I’ve been here for nine years and never won a single thing,” Kolisi repeated bluntly.
Dobson agrees, saying that winning a trophy would be “the best possible way to say goodbye to the grand old lady of South African rugby”.
But they are both well aware that the swansong season at their home ground will also be a huge spur of encouragement for visiting teams, who will want to mark their last drive past the University of Cape Town, along the narrow tree-lined streets of Rondebosch and to the old-school, tiny changing rooms with a victory that can never be erased. Truly, the Stormers have a massive target on their backs.
“It’s not just our last time at Newlands, but it is also every other team’s last time at Newlands. We will try to use it as a positive, because we want to give people something to smile about. We want this to be a year of celebration,” said Kolisi of the sentiment pervading this season.
Given their artistry out wide, they are almost compelled to entertain, even by default. Some of the most memorable tries have been hatched at Newlands. But they have also had a soft centre, upon which the brutal packs from the north of the country have preyed.
“We just want to win games, no matter how ugly it is. You can play the most exciting rugby, but if you’re not winning, that won’t bring people back to Newlands,” said Kolisi.
Improving on the road
There is also a different language being used around Newlands, one emboldened by what the Springboks did when they went to New Zealand and won again.
“Winning in Wellington, that is big for us as players and for our mentality. We want to take it into our unions. It is easy to do something great once, but you have to maintain it,” said Kolisi. By that he means the Stormers must start setting their sights higher when they hit the road, especially in New Zealand.
“When we go on tour, we want to win every game. Most of the previous tours I went on, we lost some games before we got on the park. We picked which games we thought we could win, and we must change that.”
The Stormers will have to do a lot of the work without their talisman, however, after a late tackle from Hurricanes hooker Ricky Riccitelli cut Kolisi’s opening Super Rugby game short after just 24 minutes. Medical tests have confirmed that he will be out for six to eight weeks, watching helplessly and restlessly from the sidelines as the Stormers soldier on.
With or without him, they will go into the 2020 Super Rugby season emboldened by belief and the reality that this is the last year they will call Newlands home. They dare to dream, in much the same way the founder of Roc Nation once rapped that the city of New York inspires one to dream, in the hit song Empire State of Mind.
In New York
Concrete jungle where dreams are made of
There’s nothing you can’t do
Now you’re in New York
These streets will make you feel brand new
Big lights will inspire you
Let’s hear it for New York, New York
Dobson, Kolisi and the rest of the optimistic Stormers will no doubt do all they can to make their dreams come true in the concrete museum that is Newlands. It ought to be an unforgettable year, however it plays out.