Opinions, Springboks

How the joker in the pack became the ace

Stormers and Springbok hooker Scarra Ntubeni has known World Cup-winning Springbok captain Siya Kolisi since the age of 12. He gives Mark Keohane a first-hand account of the Kolisi he knows.

he first time I met Siya was on the opposing sides of a scrum. He was playing for Grey Junior U12s and I was playing for Dale U12s. We both played No 8. Our schools’ rivalry started back then and over time the rivalry would lead to familiarity and then to a friendship since we both relocated to the Wester Province Rugby Academy as 18 year-olds.

Siya, when I first met him, couldn’t speak English, but he could play rugby. His English improved because of his friend Nick Holton. Nick could speak Xhosa and he helped Siya massively in those early years and I know Siya improved Nick’s Xhosa. Nick played flyhalf for Grey and he has been a constant in Siya’s life and would count as one of Siya’s closest friends. Siya named his son Nicholas after Nick.

My rivalry with Siya continued into our teenage years when I captained Border at the U16 Grant Khomo national week and Siya captained Eastern Province. Both teams were unbeaten but we never got to play each other. Eastern Province, because they had played the more fashionable provinces, were declared champions, but we were convinced we were the better team. It was a real Eastern Cape rivalry and the matter would be settled when the two teams met at the old Boet Erasmus Stadium in a curtain-raiser to the senior EP side. We won the game and, in our eyes, we were South Africa’s U16 champions.

Siya stayed at Grey throughout his High School career and I moved to King Edward School (KES) for Grade 11 and 12. We always kept in touch and would see each other at Schools festivals and at national rugby weeks. There’s a hilarious story about myself and Siya in our final year at school. Siya was a beast of a schoolboy and we all knew he would make the SA Schools side, but there were some very good hookers at the tournament and there was no guarantee I’d make the national squad.

Siya’s EP played Western Province in the unofficial final and the Rondebosch and WP hooker Gary Topkin ran right over Siya. I couldn’t believe what I saw. I went to him afterwards and said of all the players to run over you, why did it have to be the hooker? I hadn’t seen many guys run over Siya and haven’t since, but that day I thought his missed tackle would cost me a place in the SA Schools side. He told me not to worry, I’d played well enough to make it. He was right and myself and World Cup winner Bongi Mbonambi were selected for the SA Schools, along with Siya.

Siya, as a teenage player, was a superstar and strong attacker, but he wasn’t as committed to defence. He’d carry well at No 8, but on defence, he could have been standing at fullback. Back in the day, he was flippin lazy!

We joke a lot about those early days. Rugby came very easy to Siya and it may have contributed to his lack of discipline in his early years. He didn’t really have to fight for his place and it was only after he suffered a serious knee injury a few years ago and had to work really hard to get back that I saw the mental change in his make-up.

The Siya who joined me at the Academy as an 18 year-old and the Siya of four years ago was very different to the Siya of today. I don’t mean it in a negative way, but Siya’s character was very laid back, he was the joker, the drinker and the party animal. He just happened to be a very good rugby player.

Big things were expected of Siya early on in his career and the big challenge was his discipline when it came to being a professional rugby player. I was in the same boat, as were most of the Academy players. Staying in Rondebosch and Newlands was not easy because of all the temptations that come with student life in the area. So many University of Cape Town students reside there and every day of the week, you could find a party or at least a reason to party.

It was easy to stray from the very structured lifestyle expected of us as young professional rugby players. It was initially very difficult, being two outsiders in a new province, where there was so much expectation on performance.

Siya and I both will forever be indebted to Hilton and Kendra Houghton and Paul van den Berg, who were so influential in our early days at Western Province. Hilton and Kendra and Paul represented us but more than that they acted as father, mother and brother figure.

Hilton was so protective over Siya that he took him in to his house over the first festive season break after we finished school, to ensure he would continue to train, be responsible and understand the enormous opportunity he had through his rugby.

Back then, Siya was very much a free spirit. He was a good young man but a wild young man.

So many rugby people played such important roles for both of us back then. We were given a place to stay, the Albion Place in Newlands, which was arranged by UCT’s Kevin Foote and Dave Wessels. Both men have gone onto bigger things in rugby, with Dave now the Melbourne Rebels head coach. Siya, myself, Ricky Schroeder (who was an SA Schools scrumhalf) and Sam Lane, the son of former Wallabies and Springboks assistant coach Tim Lane), shared the place.

Later on Siya and I would move into a house opposite Newlands Rugby Stadium, courtesy of Mr Tobie Titus. Hilton got Paul to move in with us, to act like a big brother and ensure the discipline was maintained and that any partying was balanced with work ethic on the rugby field. Back then we were two ‘Loskop’ rugby players, who had turned professional at 18 years-old.

Hilton really believed in Siya and myself and his influence when we first arrived in Cape Town can’t be overstated.

The most significant change with Siya came when he met (his wife) Rachael. She has defined his change from man child into man. He adores her, puts her on a pedestal and has reformed his life since meeting her. He has taken on the responsibility of being the man of the house, a man of influence to teammates, friends and South Africans.

Since meeting Rachael, Siya has settled into a new phase of his life. He has retained his sense of humour and coolness, amid all the competitiveness, but he takes very seriously his family and his career.

It didn’t happen overnight and I could write a book on our rugby travels and friendship from the age of 12, but it is so inspiring to see what Siya has become.

I’ll never forget making my Test debut against Argentina earlier this year, six years after first being named in a Springbok squad. Siya and I got to play for together for the Springboks. Injuries had set me back and there were times when I wanted to pack it in. I’d go to Siya as a friend and tell him I was done with rugby. He’d give me the tough love and tell me to quit and not to come back one day crying that I wasn’t prepared to fight back. He’d make me think about the moment and not just give me an answer that would suit the moment. Our relationship is such that when he was battling to come back from injury and was down, I could also give him some tough love about why he couldn’t give up.

Religion has also been significant for Siya and Springbok icon Bryan Habana was very important in Siya’s Christianity. Siya is a very outspoken Christian and very active religiously. It has given him contentment, as has being a husband and a father.

Siya and I, like most young men, really enjoyed going out and having drinks, but three years ago he stopped drinking completely and even now he will only occasionally have a beer. I can’t say I’ve given up completely!

I mention that because Siya doesn’t judge me because I haven’t followed a similar path. If anything, he looks after me. If we are on tour with the Stormers and we go out early in the week, he’ll suggest we head back after I’d had a few beers. He’d offer words of encouragement about the need to be fresh for training and to be an example at training. I’d listen, just like he had listened when I felt it appropriate to speak to him about something.

Siya’s a good man, who has always looked after his family. He has also been blessed, in rugby terms, to have had the support and belief of Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus. We all met Rassie as youngsters when he was Western Province and Stormers Director of Rugby. Rassie really rated Siya, but was never prepared to give any of us a hand out. He had an expectation of us and we knew it.

For me it was special to see Siya captain the Boks to the World Cup title, with Rassie as the big boss next to him. The two have a very strong bond.

I have such respect for the changes Siya has made in his life and it has shown in his leadership on the rugby field. Where he was once the joker in the pack, he is now the ace. He has matured a lot quicker than some of his mates. I have been impressed with the way he led the Stormers and there is a particular example when he opted for three points to draw against the Crusaders at Newlands.

It was the last play of the game and Siya had done all his calculations. He felt the additional point guaranteed from the draw would mean more than a possible extra two points from a try. There was no guarantee we would score from a kick to the corner and lineout maul.

A few of us felt differently and let him know in the change room afterwards. He put us in our place. It wasn’t in an ugly way but in a way that made a statement that he was in charge and that he was accountable for his decisions. He was stern but he also softened it by telling us we needed to relax and trust him being in charge. It was in that moment that I knew he had grown up big time.

There was perspective and there was calm.

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