Siya Kolisi, standard bearer for the 'Rainbow Nation'

Tokyo (AFP) –


World Cup-winning Springbok skipper Siya Kolisi carries the weight of the 'Rainbow Nation' on his shoulders as the first black captain of the South Africa rugby union team, a long-time bastion of the country's white Afrikaner community.

Coach Rassie Erasmus appointed Kolisi when he took over from the sacked Allister Coetzee last year, a bold statement for a team that does not have a specific quota system, but does have a 'transformation' target of 50 percent players of colour.

Erasmus admitted he had been a bit "naive" in not realising the enormity of the symbolism in having a black Springbok captain.

"I was a bit naive, because the whole emotional things that went around that in South Africa, about having the first black captain for the Springboks, certainly caught Siya off guard, it caught me off guard."

Both Kolisi and Erasmus admitted it affected the flanker's performance at first but the 28-year-old grew into the role with the help of other leaders around him and was inspirational in the 32-12 defeat of England in the final.

Kolisi's first thoughts after winning the game were to call for unity in South Africa, stressing that the multi-racial Springboks (12 of the 31-strong squad are black) had pulled together to make history.

"We have so many problems in our country but a team like this, we come from different backgrounds, different races but we came together with one goal and we wanted to achieve it.

"I really hope we've done that for South Africa. Just shows that we can pull together if we want to achieve something."

Kolisi has become the standard-bearer for a country that famously won the tournament on home soil in 1995 in front of then-president Nelson Mandela in the first major sporting event to take place in South Africa following the end of apartheid.

He has a rags-to-riches story after growing up in the poor black township of Zwide outside Port Elizabeth. He watched the 2007 World Cup final at a pub because there was no TV at home.

This time, the final coincided with Kolisi's 50th cap and he flew his father over for the occasion -- his first ever trip overseas -- the pair embracing warmly after the Webb Ellis Cup was won.

- 'Inspiration' -

Springbok flanker Francois Louw said Kolisi's role went much further than just rugby.

"Siya's got a lot of weight on his shoulders in terms of his role of captain with regards to the make-up of our country and our nation, where we've come from and where we are right now," the Bath forward said.

Ex-Springbok Bryan Habana described Kolisi as "an inspiration for many, not only rugby players but people in South Africa".

"He had a very hard upbringing where he wasn't sometimes worried about the type of rugby boots he could wear for training, but more about what food he was going to eat that night because they were so underprivileged," said Habana, who was part of the Bok squad that won the 2007 World Cup.

Kolisi's mother, aged just 16 when she gave birth to him, died when he was 15, three years after he had been noticed by scouts at a youth tournament and offered a rugby scholarship to Port Elizabeth's prestigious Grey High School, a breeding ground for many a South African rugby player and cricketer.

"What Siya has achieved has been remarkable," said prop Tendai Mtawarira.

"For a young kid from Zwide in Port Elizabeth to rise above his circumstances and become Springbok captain, and lead the way he has, it's been inspirational to all South Africans -– from all walks of life.

Mtawarira, himself born in Zimbabwe, added it was "really important that the team is well represented".

"I've had the privilege to see the team evolve to get to now... so many guys of colour who have been excellent and are deserving of their places in the squad," he said, dispelling the myth that it was a 'quota team' in which black players were picked ahead of better white ones.

Erasmus himself paid warm tribute to his captain after the match.

"When you sit down and think about it, there was a stage when Siya didn't have food to eat and, yes, that is the captain and he led South Africa to hold this cup and that is what Siya is."