Siya Kolisi: Gentle Giant with the Soul of a Stormer

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Fresh from his home in the ramshackle Township of Zwide in the Eastern Cape, Siya Kolisi wanted to make a big splash as a sportsman in his new primary school. He jumped right in, and almost drowned. It was only the third time he had been in a swimming pool.

So Siya didn’t make the water polo team at Grey Junior College that day, but he did prove his willingness to give sport a try. And when he took to the rugby field, he knew straight away that he was in for the game of his life.

Living up to the early promise that earned him his scholarship, the tall and strapping Siya now shines as a loose forward for the DHL Stormers and Western Province.

He made his debut as a Springbok against Scotland in 2013, and was named Man of the Match for his bold and fearless play.

From his roots in club rugby and his upbringing in one of the most poverty-stricken parts of the country, Siya is proof that sporting dreams do come true, if you work hard enough at them.

He spoke to David O’Sullivan about the thrill of the game, the joys of fatherhood, his touching reunion with the siblings he now cares for, and a life of change on and off the field.

Siya Kolisi, thank you so much for your time. You grew up in the impoverished township Zwide in Port Elizabeth. When you look at your life there, and look at your life as Siya Kolisi, DHL Stormers, DHL Western Province, Springboks … How fundamentally have you changed?

Yoh, it’s a huge, huge difference. Because when I was young in Zwide, I didn’t have big dreams. I couldn’t dream big, because what I used to … people I used to look up to didn’t have that much, you know. So you have a limited vision, basically. So when I got my bursary to go to Grey, when I started going to a school that was more in sports, I started dreaming big. And ja, from then on I just told myself there’s nothing that can stop me. It’s all in my hands now, I’ve got the right equipment. And I worked my way into Grey, making the 1st Team, making the EP – the Eastern Province team, all the way to the DHL Stormers team, which was obviously the greatest feeling ever, because I always looked up to the guys. I used to watch Schalk, you know. I met Schalk when I was in grade 8 … he gave me his signature when they came through with the Springbok bus, and I’ve still got that picture now. And then, playing with him was an incredible achievement.

At what stage of your life did you realise that rugby as a career was a possibility for you?

When I was 15, I started getting lazy with my school work. I just wanted to play rugby. And then, I remember when I went to matric, we were writing a three-hour exam and I didn’t like accounting. And I was sleeping through the exam, and the teacher asked: “What are you doing.” And I said: “Don’t worry, sir. I will make it in rugby one day.” And that teacher, when I played my first Springbok game, game me a call to say: “I’m glad you stuck to your word.”

Tell me about coming from the Eastern Cape to Western Province to play rugby. Was it a big cultural shift for you? Was it a difficult time in terms of adapting, changing to this environment?

No, I really fit in perfectly because I stayed here in Stellenbosch, and I met the guys, the guys that were playing – the Frans Malherbe, Eben Etzebeth at the Springboks under 18s and they made me feel welcome and were really easy to get along with. And then, when I got to Cape Town, I just knew I couldn’t get side-tracked, because there was so much happening here compared to the Eastern Province, so all I had to do was just work and make sure I know what I’m here to do. And the guys helped me a lot to get used to Cape Town.

I’m sure that the moment you know that you’re going to represent your franchise at a senior level is a big moment. Can you remember taking the call, the person who said to you: “Siya, you’re starting on Saturday?”

Yeah, coach Allister. I actually didn’t start – I was on the bench. I just couldn’t believe it because we had so many loose forwards at that time, and I got the call and I just couldn’t believe it. I called my people at home and told everyone: “Guys, you must watch. I’m going to play on Saturday. I’ll probably get five or ten minutes because I’m on the bench.” And I got actually on the full, the first twelve minutes. Unfortunately Schalk got injured. I felt bad, but at the same time I knew this is my opportunity. I’ve got to use this opportunity, so ja, it was a great, great feeling.

You replaced Schalk.

Yes.

The man who gave you his autograph when you were …

Yes. when I was in grade 8.

When you were in grade 8.

Ja. It was tough. It was mixed emotions because he got hurt and that injury obviously led him to all the other things that took him back, so it wasn’t a great, but at the same time I had to focus on just trying to enjoy the opportunity and take the full opportunity.

When I look at your Springbok record, you’ve got a pretty good win ratio, haven’t you? 80% win ratio.

Yeah.

Tell me about playing for the Springboks. How much of a step-up is that compared to playing for the Stormers or for Western Province?

It’s … I mean, it’s huge because you’re playing international … same as playing for the Stormers … but now you’re playing against the best in the world. Like the best in that country. The best in Super Rugby, basically. And it’s just guys … they’re very professional, they give their best, they do their actual work, so it’s hectic – it’s tough, but I’m one of the best players of the world in my team, so it gives me confidence. I mean, I played my first game in Mbombela stadium, and I had Eben with me and my friends, I had Bryan with me that played with the Stormers, Jean was my captain that day, and the coach simply told me just go and enjoy yourself.

And you did, didn’t you win man of the match? Scored a try.

Ja, I didn’t score a try – I fell close to the line, but I got man of the match. But I still haven’t got a try for the Springboks yet …

I’m told that your Springbok debut passes in the blink of an eye – it’s the fastest game you’ll ever play?

It was very quick, ja.  I wanted to be everywhere all the time, so I tried to do as much as I can. And to be honest, I didn’t get tired in that game because I had so much adrenaline pumping. And my dad was there to watch me – he’s never seen me play live and it was the first game that he’s ever watched, so it was special.

How have you felt you have changed? Obviously, you’re a very different person to the youngster in Zwide, but playing professional rugby from the start of your career with DHL Stormers and Western Province to now … Physically, are you bigger? Are you faster?

Ja, I would say physically I am bigger. I care about my body more now since I didn’t as much when I was younger. And I know how to, when I’m feeling niggles I can look after myself, I know I must go ice. You know, the older you get, the more you learn. I’m still young, but now I’m sort of the senior player because I’ve played so many games for the DHL Stormers, so you get to know your body. And obviously, you can feel like, I’ve got a kid now, I’ve got my brother and sister living with me in the house. I got engaged, and I can’t … It’s not only about me anymore, it’s about my family. So I’ve got to look after myself and I’ve got to set a good example for my brother and sister and my little son, Nick, and be a good family man so my brother and sister can look up to me.

Tell me how Nick’s changed your life? He’s about two years old now?

He’s 16 months. He has … at the beginning, you know, you can never be ready for a child, because I’ve never had one before. And it was tough. It was tough waking up, and when my fiancée was pregnant … you know, they normally say women get cravings? I actually got the cravings. I used to wake up …

Ja, I used that excuse as well. I know that one.

Now, Nick … whenever I’m having a bad day, I’ve got something to look up to. To see my family and little Nick. And I love just watching him grow up the way he is. He’s becoming a good man, and I am going to set a very good example for him.

It’s an interesting story as well, about your brother and sister. They’re much younger than you, aren’t they? And you found that they were living in impoverished circumstances back in Port Elizabeth?

Yes, actually I saw them for the last time … My mom passed and my sister was crawling then, like basically a couple of months. My brother was in my old school in the township. And the funeral … the last time I saw them, then I tried to find out where they were. They were staying with their dad and then their dad passed away. And then they were with their dad’s family and they got sent to foster parents, and then they stayed there and they weren’t treated well, and so this one granny took them and looked after them for seven years. I went out looking for them and I went to go play for the Springboks in PE, didn’t make the side, so I had my car in PE from Cape Town – it was driven down – so I was just driving around my township and I saw one of my cousins and he said: “Siya, I saw your brother and sister and I told him immediately: “Please, show me where they are.” And then we walked in. And I knew my sister wouldn’t know who I am, but my brother knew who I was. So when I walked in, I’ve never been so scared in my life. I didn’t know how my sister was going to react and I didn’t know how my brother was going to react and I walked in … And I could feel the chemistry between me and my sister, and I remember she was standing against the corner, just looking at me, and she came. She, like, touched my face and gave me hug and honestly … I started crying, that day. And since then, I said I must take them in. So I took them in, and now I’m trying to get full guardianship. They’re staying at my house, they go to school across the street, because I really want them to get the same opportunities that I kind of got. I want them to have fair opportunities so they don’t have excuses when they grow up. The same as me. I had an opportunity and I try to use it as much as I can. And I believe they deserve a chance as well.

Well, you’re a fantastic role model for so many youngsters who come from hard circumstances. I have no doubt that your own brother and sister will learn a lot from you. Do you feel there is a pressure on you to be that role model for so many youngsters?

To be honest, there is pressure, but I don’t like seeing it as pressure. I just see it as a challenge and a responsibility, basically. And I love it, to be quite honest, because it makes me a better person at the end of the day. It makes my life easier – I know, everyone knows what’s good and what’s not good. And I want my brother to become like that as well when he has his own family. I want him to see the good things – the stuff that we didn’t experience when we were younger. So now that’s what I’m trying to create. My own family. A proper, good family. Wife, husband and kids. That’s what I want him to look up to.

Well Siya, with the BrightRock logo on your jersey for 2016 I wish you a fabulous, injury free and successful 2016. And thank you so much for chatting to us.

  • This interview first appeared on the Change Exchange, an online platform by BrightRock, provider of the first-ever life insurance that changes as your life changes. The opinions expressed in in it don’t necessarily reflect the views of BrightRock.