OLIVER HOLT: Springboks' Siya Kolisi is on a mission to beat England

OLIVER HOLT: South Africa’s inspirational leader Siya Kolisi is on a mission to beat England for the ‘kids in the schools who sing for us’… and says a Rugby World Cup semi-final defeat would not be a failure but a betrayal

  • South Africa will take on England in Saturday’s Rugby World Cup semi-final
  • Siya Kolisi will captain the most experienced Springboks line-up ever fielded
  • A shock defeat for South Africa would be viewed by Kolisi as a betrayal 

There is a station building in Presles-Courcelles, the community north of Paris where the South Africa rugby team are based, that has stood for more than a century. The trains still pass through on their way to the Gare du Nord but these days it is home to a boulangerie, Baguette Marcel, not a ticket office.

On the walls either side of the door there are pictures of the owner’s great-grandfather, Marcel Compagnon, in the different uniforms he fought in during the First and Second World Wars. He was a barrel-maker, his great-granddaughter said, but his life was about duty to his country.

Ten minutes’ walk away the South Africa captain Siya Kolisi arrived just after dawn at the village hall, the Salle Jeanne d’Arc, where — according to a plaque on the wall — the great singer-songwriter Charles Aznavour, made his performing debut in 1943.

With its stage and its red velvet curtains and its 12 rows of neatly arranged chairs, it looked as if it were more used to rehearsing amateur productions of Tartuffe than hosting the skipper of rugby’s world champions.

But after head coach Jacques Nienaber had announced that his team to play England in Saturday’s World Cup semi-final in the Stade de France would be unchanged from the side who beat France in their last-eight epic on Sunday, and the most experienced starting line-up the Springboks have ever fielded, Kolisi spoke about duty, too.

South Africa captain Siya Kolisi will lead his team out in Saturday’s Rugby World Cup semi-final

The 32-year-old has previously spoken movingly of bringing the country together following South Africa’s World Cup success four-years ago, when they beat England in the final

Kolisi will captain the most experienced starting line-up the Springboks have ever fielded 

Four years ago, when South Africa trounced England 32-12 in the World Cup final in Yokohama, Kolisi, his country’s first black rugby captain, had spoken movingly of bringing the country together and how much the support of ‘people in the taverns, people in the shebeens, people in farms and homeless people and people in rural areas’ meant to him.

And now, even though South Africa are overwhelming favourites to beat England tomorrow evening, there was not the slightest hint they would take Steve Borthwick’s side lightly.

Nienaber pointed out that England had also been written off before they beat the All Blacks in the 2019 semi-final.

Time and again, the South African players who sat behind the table on the stage stressed the team ethic that ruled them. Eben Etzebeth, the 6ft 8in lock, is an interesting man with much to say but he was so keen to stress that the match against England was about the collective that he refused to indulge himself with personal opinions.

And so it was left to Kolisi to talk about what drives him and this South Africa team and why he feels that any complacency in the build-up to the England game, anything that could contribute to a shock defeat, would not just be a failure but a betrayal.

‘I wish you could see all the support back home,’ Kolisi said.

‘This is all that people talk about, with everything else happening. Kids in schools are sending us clips of them singing — because they know some of us like singing.

‘People at work on Fridays wear green jerseys and the beautiful thing to see is that people who can’t afford them, wear anything green, anything to represent the Springboks. We see that and it continues to motivate us.

Kolisi explained the support from South Africa supporters back home is driving the team on

South Africa are big favourites going into Saturday’s knockout game against England

Head coach Jacques Nienaber is backing his side to make it to a second consecutive Rugby World Cup final, having defeated hosts and favourites France in an enthralling quarter-final

‘We know what the team has meant in the past — not just in sport but for the country. We use that to inspire us and keep us going. It’s more purposeful when you’re not just doing something for yourself, but for people who you don’t even know and have never met.

‘When you start playing for others and doing things for others, it’s not easy to give up. It’s much harder. When you think of how many people would give anything to be where we are; how many people in our country are unemployed.

‘I’m not saying we’re going to win every game but giving up and not giving everything would be cheating, not just myself and the team, but the rest of the people at home. The harder we play, the more we do well, the more we are able to open up opportunities for others. That drives us.

‘We’re a purpose-driven team, not a trophy-driven team. Of course, the trophies help you to get more people wanting to work with you, but sometimes you can look at your struggles and what you’re going through and feel sorry for yourself.

‘But we don’t. We use that pain and those struggles and put them on our shoulders and carry them with us to drive us through the battles. It helps us to keep going when things get tough.’

It was inspiring listening to Kolisi in that small hall. How it must feel when he addresses the side before a match, only the players can know. ‘He is selfless and he gives a lot of his time to making other people happy,’ Damian de Allende said of his skipper. ‘I don’t know many people like that.’ 

It all contributed to the idea that this is a Springbok team on a mission. Fifteen of the matchday 23 played in the 2019 World Cup final but there is not even a hint that they are sated. 

Kolisi described South Africa as a purpose-driven team, rather than a ‘trophy-driven team’

Nienaber believes Steve Borthwick’s (left) England team will try to ‘suffocate’ South Africa

They exude the characteristics of a team who are still hungry and driven. Nienaber said that any player who became entitled would soon find himself out of the squad.

They know what England will bring. ‘They are comfortable not playing with the ball,’ Nienaber said. ‘They like to suffocate and strangle you. Steve Borthwick has embedded a new plan. They have a unique kicking game. Every country has their own little soul, how they like to play rugby.’

The weather forecast is not good, either, so England’s kicking game may come even more to the fore.

Kolisi said the Boks were prepared for that, too. They radiate the sense of a team who are prepared for anything. Duty is calling them once more.

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