Who can replace ‘man of the people’ Siya Kolisi as Springboks captain?

Springboks captain Siya Kolisi takes a selfie with supporters during the Springboks’ trophy tour. Picture: Rodger Bosch / AFP

Springboks captain Siya Kolisi takes a selfie with supporters during the Springboks’ trophy tour. Picture: Rodger Bosch / AFP

Published Mar 14, 2024


I remember John Smit telling me a story of the time he shared a room with Richie McCaw in the week of a Barbarians game in London.

The pair were rival captains of the Springboks and All Blacks at the time, but in the friendly atmosphere of a BaaBaas week, they shared notes on leadership.

By the end of the week, McCaw said to Smit: “Mate, I’ve listened to some the calls you’ve had... I can’t believe the stuff you have to deal with. I thought captaining the All Blacks was pressure, but you have it far worse.”

Smit used to say that the leadership during a match was the easier bit, but being all things to all people off the pitch was challenging.

Rassie Erasmus has understood this since his days as a player. He saw how the team dynamic was disrupted when Gary Teichmann was removed from the Springbok captaincy for the 1999 World Cup.

In fact, Erasmus was offered the captaincy by coach Nick Mallett – but, after much deliberation, he turned it down.

So when Erasmus dropped the bomb on Tuesday that Siya Kolisi might not be the captain in the future, we can be sure that it is no idle comment, and that he has a carefully thought-out four-year plan for the team.

Erasmus says he prefers his captain to be based in South Africa for ease of communication and consultation, and already there is one immediate problem of Kolisi’s attachment to Parisian team Racing 92 – he won’t be able to play in the June friendly against Wales at Twickenham, because the game falls outside the international window.

The Boks will have a new or stand-in captain for that game, but I suspect Erasmus will welcome back Kolisi for the Ireland tour in July and the ensuing matches against the All Blacks.

Those four games are colossal, and there won’t be too much departure from the blueprint that won the last World Cup.

New attacking coach Tony Brown and defence coach Jerry Flannery will add nuances, but there will be little experimentation.

But looking ahead to the defence of the World Cup in 2027, Erasmus has a good idea which of his current group will not be there.

Will Kolisi, currently 32, be on top of his game at the age of 36?

The likes of Deon Fourie are exceptions to the longevity rule, and Erasmus has to plan for the likelihood that Kolisi will bow out of international rugby some time between now and the next World Cup.

In considering his captaincy options, the Bok coach will consider the nation-building impact ‘man of the people’ Kolisi has made. It is indefinable just how revered Kolisi is in South Africa, and how respected he is abroad.

The loose forward has a common touch that has elevated him to the level of a statesman. Sport can do that in South Africa if you have the right person.

Let’s look at the leading candidates. Bongi Mbonambi and Lukhanyo Am have captaincy experience, but neither has looked entirely comfortable with the responsibility – the former struggles to keep calm, and the latter is too quiet.

Some pundits have mentioned a left-field call like Frans Malherbe, but I think that one should stay in the left field.

The obvious candidate to me is Eben Etzebeth. He has done the job before – for a series of games in the dark days of 2017 – so he knows how tough it can be when the team is undergoing hard times.

Etzebeth is 32, and while locks can play longer than flanks, will his body be bearing up in four years?

Etzebeth would make a very good interim captain, say for the next year or so if Erasmus doesn’t stick with Kolisi, and then midway towards the World Cup, an informed decision can be made as to the long-term leader.

IOL Sport