I am immediately struck by how welcoming Siya Kolisi’s family is when I arrive at his home in Paris. It is cold and dark outside but he embraces me with a warm hug at the front door and his wife, Rachel, offers up homemade soup and biltong.
I haven’t felt nervous about speaking to a rugby player since walking into the All Blacks changing room to ask Dan Carter for his jersey in 2010 but they immediately put me at ease.
Two weeks ago, Siya was parading his second World Cup trophy around South Africa, FaceTiming Roger Federer on an open-top bus. The number of people that came out to celebrate was staggering — it’s what you dream of — and hearing about Siya’s life makes me realise why it means so much.
I never knew he had been stabbed as a teenager. Spending an evening in his company, I listen to some of the most harrowing but compelling stories I’ve ever heard. It leaves me fascinated about life in the township, where love and violence seem to go hand in hand. And it makes me realise how much of my own life I’ve taken for granted.
‘It’s been wild,’ he says, reflecting on the weeks of celebrations since beating the All Blacks in the World Cup final. ‘The trophy parade in 2019 was big but this was 20 times bigger.
South Africa talisman Siya Kolisi sat down with Wales legend Dan Biggar in a moving first interview since winning the Rugby World Cup for a second time
Kolisi admitted the trophy celebrations after last month’s success were bigger than in 2019
Kolisi held aloft the Webb Ellis Trophy during the open-top bus parade on the team’s return to South Africa
‘A lot of people have been in a dark place but you could see their joy when we travelled around South Africa. It’s like they had been waiting for something to lift them. Some people couldn’t afford to watch us at home during the World Cup because you have to pay for the TV. People started opening up malls at 10pm to watch us play. Different backgrounds, different races, all sitting together.
‘When we went home I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. In Cape Town, the bus couldn’t move. You’d look up and you couldn’t see land, you just see people. Then you turn a corner and there are even more people. It was special.’
It was incredible to watch the celebration videos from South Africa, seeing how they united the nation. I loved the clip of a young boy saying his heart was beating like a Porsche with no brakes when he saw the trophy.
It even had a knock-on effect on the country’s economy. There are very few teams who have that kind of influence and Siya, as captain, has become the face of it.
‘When I was younger, living in the township, my mindset was survival. How do I make it through the day? Now I want to encourage people in the township to think big. Have wild dreams. What would I tell young Siya? I would say actually dream about being a doctor, dream about being Springbok captain, because it’s possible.
‘We don’t want it to end on the rugby field. When we fight, we don’t fight for ourselves, we fight for those that are coming after us. They will look at us and see our representation. Diversity is our strongest point and that’s what we should use as a country.
‘We want people to have humanity again, where we care about each other. If I’m doing well and you’re struggling, then I’m not doing well until you do well. That’s how we live in our team.
‘Coach Rassie (Erasmus) was so good at bringing that in, making sure we mind each other and understand each other. What do the black guys like? We like to sing before we play. Some guys are not used to that so let’s talk about it. Why do we sing? We’ve been singing since we were young. When I was young, I would sing when I was sad, happy, hungry.
South Africa’s rugby heroes were greeted by thousands of fans on the streets of Pretoria
President Cyril Ramaphosa holds the World Cup up as he stands alongside Kolisi (left) and head coach Jacques Nienaber (right)
The inspirational flanker has joined French side Racing 92 and is set for his Top 14 debut on Saturday
In an open and emotional interview, Kolisi opened up on his ‘violent’ childhood in South Africa
‘When other people join in, it felt like they were carrying my burden with me. Sometimes we don’t even need to warm up, we just sing together and it makes you warm from the inside out. After a while, some of the guys who are not black started singing and now they know the songs. Felix Jones is from Ireland and he could sing the words.’
Before I know it, Siya is singing in front of me in the Xhosa language in his living room. A song that translates to: ‘We are the Springboks, and those that don’t know have never seen us before’. It is a bit different to Calon Lan!
I always knew Siya came from tough beginnings but in the rugby environment we don’t often sit down and talk about things. Singing to ease your hunger pains is such an alien concept to me and it is a bit of a reality check to hear about his struggles in the Zwide township before he found rugby.
‘It’s normal where I come from to not eat,’ he says. ‘Whenever I was hungry I would go and knock on my neighbour’s door and ask for a cup of raw rice, and my grandmother would cook it for me.
‘I would go days without eating sometimes. I would drink sugar water to put myself to bed and that makes you feel full for a little bit. I loved going to school because I played sport and I got a meal. A slice of bread with powdered milk; that’s all the nutrients I had for the day.
‘In the township, your parents are not watching you every day. Adults do things in front of children that children shouldn’t see. Smoking, drinking, hearing people being intimate in your house.
‘We started smoking and drinking when I was still a kid. Me and my friends would put money in together and stuff was cheap. A couple of my friends went the other way and I started going to rugby training.
‘If I missed training they would come looking for me. I thought, “OK, I mean something to these people”. It was a sense of belonging. Bro, I went to training in bare feet and the fields had thorns.
South Africa’s tense victory over New Zealand in Paris last month brought unity to the nation
No team has won as many Rugby World Cups as South Africa’s four, with New Zealand (three), Australia (two) and England (one) trailing the Springboks
‘After a while you get used to getting a thorn in your feet, you don’t care, you remove it and carry on because there I felt like I belonged. If I didn’t go to those trainings I don’t think I would be here today.
‘I was raised by my grandmother and she always told me to use what’s around you. I couldn’t afford toys, I used a brick as a toy, I used to push it around like it was my car. I loved growing up in the township. It taught me a lot of the values I have today. People work hard, they wake up at 4am to stand next to the highway hoping somebody gives them an opportunity. We’d play in the streets. There’s so much good there.’
It makes me think about how I bring up my own kids. The fight Siya has had throughout his life is reflected in South Africa’s attitude on the pitch. Even if they don’t play their best game, you know they will cling on and be in with a chance of winning. They never give up. I’ve experienced it first-hand and it’s one of the reasons they have been so successful in World Cup knockout games.
‘You don’t stop chasing until they’ve put the ball down,’ he says. ‘In those play-off games, man, England played so well. They just kept kicking behind us so we had to turn and we couldn’t impose our physicality.
‘I got subbed and a lot of people say, “Why would you take your captain off?” The game wasn’t working for me. We needed a game-breaker like Kwagga (Smith). Being selfless and knowing what the team needs is one of our big keys as a group.’
The South African stereotype is that they are abrasive characters. That can be true on the pitch but away from the game they are anything but. It’s one of the reasons why Siya has become such an icon in sport. It’s crazy to think that he has gone from extreme poverty to being a VIP guest at Madison Square Garden.
He told me he would love to go to the 2027 World Cup but he is 32 now. So what about the suggestions that he would be suited to a job in politics?
He laughs. ‘Politics? Nah. You don’t want to see me there. I’m going to dedicate myself to my foundation. I went to New York last week and did some fundraising for it. South Africa is No 1 in the world in gender-based violence. My aunt and my mum were the first people I knew that were being abused.
The fight Kolisi has had throughout his life is reflected in South Africa’s attitude on the pitch
Kolisi has undergone such a massive transition from extreme poverty to being a VIP guest at Madison Square Garden
‘In my community you see it so many times that it becomes normal. That’s not good, being immune to things like that. If a man and a woman argued then it would end up in a fight, because men don’t really speak.
‘I learnt to speak by going through therapy. I had to go to marriage counselling because I couldn’t give everything to my wife, because my heart was so hard and I didn’t know how to speak. In my late 20s, I started talking to someone and the first time I went she said, “You are damaged in every level. The stuff that you saw is not normal”.
‘It’s extreme, it’s bad. You have to speak about it, get through it. That’s why you grow up and your heart is so hard. Something happens in the community, you fight with someone, forgive them, and you move on. That’s normal in my neighbourhood.
‘I was a bartender when I was 16, illegally. Sometimes people would throw tear gas in but I couldn’t run away because I had to stand at the till and close my eyes. There were people being stabbed at the door but people carry on partying. I had a violent childhood. I got into a fight and he stabbed me as I was walking away, so I went back and we fought some more.’
I am shocked when Siya shows me the scar on the side of his neck from where he was stabbed. His experiences have shaped him into the man he is today and it doesn’t surprise me that someone like Reece James, the England and Chelsea defender, jumped at the chance to spend time with him in Paris last weekend.
Chelsea captain and England star Reece James jumped at the chance to spend time with Kolisi
The Springboks skipper laughed off the suggestion that he could transition into politics
‘He’s a good bloke,’ Siya says. ‘We talked about how you maintain success and I said find something bigger than just a trophy — something you might not be able to reach will always give you something to chase.
‘We can play rugby and what are you remembered for? I know that some women won’t get stuff to help prevent them being abused and some kids won’t get their meals if I give up. All of that is what keeps me going every day.’
We pose together for a photograph at the end of the evening and it’s definitely one that I will keep. I wish him all the best for his Racing 92 debut tomorrow and leave his house feeling quite numb with emotion.
I phone my wife, Alex, on the way home and tell her it was one of the most surreal and inspiring conversations I’ve had. One that will live with me for a long time.
Words by Nik Simon