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Stuart Barnes of The Times who has written extensively on Springboks rugby has struck a chord of disruption with his suggestion that rugby logic dictates that Rassie doesn’t include inspirational captain Siya Kolisi in his Starting XV. We look at the merits of the argument in the backdrop of Kolisi’s rise to leadership and what it means to South Africa. (For the record, Kolisi has been used in an extended 40-min first-half burst mostly, and subbed or called on in latter half, throughout the World Cup.)
BARNES’ BURNING ISSUE
“South Africa have more chance of winning without their captain,” Barnes writes, adding that Erasmus, if he can ignore the “historical and political perspective”, should select his captain on the bench.
“The No 6 shirt should be worn by the South African who knows the game of Sam Underhill, England’s key man, better than anyone — his fellow Bath flanker Francois Louw,” he says, urging for a colour-blind decision. “The best chance of uniting 57 million South Africans is to play Louw from the kick-off. One man’s inspiration will not suffice if South Africa are incapable of nullifying England at the breakdown. Kolisi has not appeared to be the force that he was before a knee injury that he suffered in Super Rugby in May.” The rugby case for benching Kolisi is powerful, Barnes insists. “Pieter-Steph du Toit has been far more influential in his lineout and counter-rucking than his fellow flanker. He has to start. But even Du Toit cannot compete quite like Louw at the breakdown.”
He cites Louw’s 74th-minute turnover in the semi-final win over Wales — a few minutes after coming on — as the match-winning moment to put South Africa in the final. “From the penalty, South Africa ended up with a kick to win the game. Would Kolisi have made that turnover? On the evidence of what came before, probably not,” he argues. Barnes hinges his theory on the breakdown not being the strength of Kolisi’s game. “It is with Louw. New Zealand gambled with an extra lineout man and lost the gamble as England controlled collisions and, with it, the tempo of the game. South Africa will be more comfortable than the All Blacks with slow possession — they will kick a great deal — but defensively, the Springboks have to halt the momentum that England bring to the game, especially early on.”
Barnes stresses that Louw will be wasted in the last 25 minutes; the damage will be done. “Far more sensible to ask him to match Underhill and Tom Curry in contact and keep South Africa within range to throw everything, Kolisi et al, for an unstoppable Springbok surge in the final 20 minutes.”
TWEAK TO INSPIRATION STORY
Barnes was inspired to pen the column after a happy Rassie declared post the Wales scrap that he was unafraid to take brave calls.
“Within the media, the decision not to select his captain would be the headline. Yet, as Eddie Jones has shown with his treatment of George Ford, selection is about matching forces to strategy. If Erasmus can finish without his skipper and without hyperbole, why can he not start without him and finish with him? After all, if South Africa win, Kolisi will lift the trophy. Ramaphosa would have his Mandela moment. Play it the other way, bow to a perceived political imperative and the chances of any South African getting anywhere near lifting the trophy are diminished. Who would be Erasmus? The right rugby call may very well be the wrong political one; the politically correct one possibly the wrong rugby call. The easy choice is to stick to this; no one would criticise Erasmus. The other choice would be one of the bravest of all time. It may go down in history as a great call; conversely, it may be the end of Erasmus. Jones has made a few big calls in his time but none like this.”
Siya Kolisi was raised by his grandmother, uncle and aunt in a Port Elizabeth township. At the age of eight he was identified as a rare rugby talent and educated at Grey Junior and then Grey High. His rugby-based education took him to Stellenbosch, the Stormers, a man-of-the-match debut against Scotland in 2013, Stormer captaincy.
The Springbok captaincy came in a circuitous way but you have to be cynical to put it down to quotas. Barnes recalls, “Had Warren Whiteley or Eben Etzebeth been fit the chances are Kolisi would not have been named captain. The flanker led South Africa in 2018 but only when Etzebeth was forced from the field.”
David Walsh of Times, recalls, “”On a Monday morning in late May last year the South Africa rugby squad had a meeting at their Johannesburg hotel. The team had a three-test series against England as their immediate goal, the 2019 World Cup as their ultimate target and they needed to choose a captain. Siya Kolisi sat amongst his teammates not thinking for a second it might be him. Rassie Erasmus, the head coach, speaks matter-of-factly, his tone rarely changing. Kolisi remembers everything up to the moment Erasmus said that he, Kolisi, would captain the team for the series against England. Everything that came after that sailed right past him without stopping.
Later that morning Erasmus would say he’d known Kolisi since he’d entered the Western Province academy as an 18-year-old and chose him to lead the Springboks because of his leadership and humility.”