From a gravel pitch to glory: world champion Kolisi comes home

Port Elizabeth (South Africa) (AFP) –


Rugby World Cup-winning captain Siya Kolisi returned to his South African roots Sunday, holding the trophy as an open-top bus crawled through the streets of a Port Elizabeth township.

It was in Zwide, 17 kilometres (11 miles) north of the coastal city, that the Springbok colossus first handled a rugby ball on a gravel, often wind-swept school sport field.

Port Elizabeth was the fourth leg of a national victory parade tour that began in Pretoria, Johannesburg and Soweto Thursday and continued in Durban and East London.

The celebrations of the 32-12 final victory over England in Japan last weekend will conclude Monday when the team drive through the streets of Cape Town, a rugby hotbed.

Among those who greeted Kolisi and his victorious teammates Sunday on a wet, windy day under a slate grey sky was Eric Songwiqi, a schoolteacher and first coach of the would-be Springbok.

"Siya handled a rugby ball for the first time on a gravel sports field at Emsengeni primary school in Zwide township," he told AFP.

"The boys would hurriedly eat their food during the school break, then ask me for the rugby ball so that they could play.

"I recall Siya being a small boy with thin legs, but strong. He oozed passion whenever he had the ball.

"I saw this diligent, well mannered and disciplined boy with great passion and enthusiasm for rugby and I knew he would go far.

"I am not surprised that he captains the Springboks. I could see leadership qualities in him even at the tender age of 12. He was focused."

Songwiqi said Kolisi, born to teenage parents in June 1991, loved rugby more than his school books.

"You could see the zeal and hunger even though it was on a rough, hard, gravel pitch," said the coach.

- 'I played a part' -

"I feel great that my product is doing well and the moment he lifted the William Webb Ellis trophy, I felt that I had played a part in the win."

Kolisi was spotted at a tournament when only 12 and won a scholarship to an elite Port Elizabeth school, where his rugby skills were honed.

After representing South Africa at under-20 level, he joined Cape Town-based Super Rugby team the Stormers and made his Springbok debut six years ago against Scotland in Nelspruit.

Last year, coach Rassie Erasmus took over a Springbok squad that had become an embarrassment, especially following a first loss to European rugby minnows Italy.

Among his first decisions was to make loose forward Kolisi the first black Test captain of the Springboks after 60 whites had skippered a team that excluded black players for 90 years.

The gamble appeared to have backfired when visiting England raced to a 21-point lead in Johannesburg in the first match of a three-Test series.

But Kolisi and his teammates did not panic, clawed back into contention with a string of tries and won a thriller 42-39.

South Africa won seven internationals and lost seven in 2018, but the groundwork had been laid for a dramatic improvement this year.

An ultimately convincing victory over pre-match favourites England in the World Cup final was the 10th in 12 matches this season.

Travelling to Port Elizabeth also marked a homecoming for Erasmus, who turned 47 this week. He was born in Despatch, a motor manufacturing town 30 kilometres northwest of Port Elizabeth.

Meanwhile, loose forward Francois Louw has become the second member of the Springbok squad to officially announce his retirement, after legendary prop Tendai 'The Beast' Mtawarira.

Known as 'Flo', the 34-year-old based in England was capped 76 times and came off the bench in the final.