Springboks offer hope to traumatised nation, says skipper Kolisi

Johannesburg (AFP) –


South Africa captain Siya Kolisi says the Springboks are much more than a team as they prepare for a Rugby Championship first-round showdown with Argentina in Gqeberha on Saturday.

Silence will envelope the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium with no spectators allowed due to an ongoing third wave of the coronavirus, which has claimed close to 76,000 lives nationally.

Apart from the pandemic, looting and arson following the recent jailing of former president Jacob Zuma for shunning a graft inquiry led to 342 deaths.

As South Africans endure unprecedented trauma since historic multiracial elections in 1994 ended decades of apartheid, Kolisi is acutely aware of the role the national rugby team plays.

"The Springboks are much more than a rugby team -- those who wear the green and gold offer hope to all the people of our beautiful country in these difficult days," he says.

"It was cold in Cape Town last Saturday before we met the Lions and yet many people -- young and old, male and female, black and white -- left the warmth of their homes to cheer us as we drove past.

"You could not help but be touched by this support. I knew then, sitting in the relative luxury of a coach, that I had to lead the Springboks to victory. I am proud that I achieved the goal.

"When the Springboks were a whites-only team in the days of apartheid they divided the nation. Now, as a multiracial team chosen purely on merit, they unite the nation.

"It is hard to express just how much that means to us players. We come from different backgrounds, different religions, different cultures. But when we put on the Springbok jersey, we are one."

- 'Proud beyond words' -

Flanker Kolisi, one of only three Springbok starters on Saturday with more than 50 caps in an experimental team, says he is "proud beyond words" to lead a team that first played 130 years ago.

After a bruising three-Test series against the Lions, coach Jacques Nienaber has kept a promise to rest many stars by making 12 changes to the matchday 23.

Kolisi, fellow forwards Jasper Wiese, Lood de Jager and Eben Etzebeth and scrum-half Cobus Reinach are the five starters retained.

Livewire Bordeaux-Begles hooker Joseph Dweba wins a first cap and winger Aphelele Fassi and tighthead prop Wilco Louw will also be closely watched.

A full-back for Durban franchise the Sharks, Fassi gets a second start after scoring a superb try in a win over Georgia last month.

Louw from London club Harlequins, a forgotten forward who last played for South Africa two seasons ago, won a surprise post-Lions call-up and skipped a queue of top-class props to secure a start.

The Springboks have hosted the Pumas 13 times and won 12, including a 73-13 romp in Johannesburg in 2013.

Argentina have made one change, replacing scrum-half Tomas Cubelli with Felipe Ezcurra, from the team that began a win over Wales last month.

There are three alterations to the bench following the 33-11 triumph in Cardiff with prop Carlos Muzzio, scrum-half Gonzalo Bertranou and utility back Sebastian Cancelliere promoted.

They replace Facundo Gigena, Ezcurra and Juan Imhoff as the annual four-nation southern hemisphere championship begins a 10th season, although South Africa missed out last year because of Covid-19.

Hooker Julian Montoya, for many seasons the understudy of now retired Argentine rugby legend Agustin Creevy at franchise and Test levels, is the skipper.

Since a first round exit from the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan, the Pumas have won three Tests, drawn three and lost one.

The victories included a stunning 25-15 triumph last year over New Zealand in Australia, ending a 36-year wait to achieve the historic feat.