Siya Kolisi must be named South African Rugby Player of the Year, and should be shortlisted for the World Rugby Player of the Year award too, after an exceptional 2021 season, writes Oliver Keohane.
There are some players who are constantly spoken about for their potential and promise, but never quite deliver, and there are some whose qualities are consistently called into question, yet always perform in the biggest moments. Siya Kolisi is of the latter class. Equally, he is a player who during every domestic season seems to be written off by the entire South African public before the Test schedule has commenced, and is then met with surprise when his heroics help the Springboks to victory.
2021 has been no different in terms of the doubt that seemed to dominate every discussion surrounding Kolisi, but in 2021 he must be celebrated with the highest praise for his huge contribution to a Springbok team that has won a British & Irish Lions series and beaten the All Blacks after 20 months spent in Test rugby wilderness.
The Kolisi who led the Springboks in their 2019 World Cup winning campaign commanded the same presence 20 months later, and he went on to do so in every game he played – which has in fact been every game. Kolisi has started in all 11 Test matches that the Springboks have played so far this year, of which they have won seven and lost four. He battled with injury during the domestic season but was back before the Georgia Test. Just as quickly he contracted Covid, was forced into two weeks of isolation, but managed to return to run out in the first Test against the British & Irish Lions.
As a captain Kolisi has been composed and assertive, win or lose, and as a player he has been as commanding in defeat as he has in victory, with perhaps his best performance in a Springbok jersey coming in the face of the crushing 19-17 last-minute loss to the All Blacks in the Rugby Championship. Following the thrilling 100th Test between the All Blacks and Springboks – which rather fittingly was decided by a few seconds and kick, on a night where the quality of each team was inseparable – we ran the story “Kolisi a king despite painful Boks defeat”, which detailed his performance as such:
“From a pure rugby perspective, Kolisi put in the complete flanker performance. He was everywhere on defence, drove through the gain line in every carry and consistently controlled the breakdown and the Springboks’ defensive alignment.
Kolisi was relentless, and he remained so for 80 minutes. The Bok captain has often come under (misguided) criticism for not finishing full games – a critique to which he answered after the Springboks’ series win over the British & Irish Lions that he does not take himself off, the coaches do when they feel that he has given everything he can in the match. Kolisi’s first 60 minutes today demanded that he remain on the field for the last 20, and he did. The Springboks needed Kolisi the aggressive and abrasive flanker, and they needed Kolisi the leader. They got both, and they got him until the final, crushing whistle went
On a night where Jordie Barrett’s boot was the cause of Springbok heartbreak, Siya Kolisi was still the best player on the pitch.”
Kolisi the captain has now seen World Cup glory and a British & Irish Lions series win, but this discussion regards Siya Kolisi the rugby player, who has been one of the best in the world this year and certainly one of South Africa’s best.
The Springboks as a whole unit have been superb in 2021, and have continued to show that along side the All Blacks they are the best side in the world. While Cheslin Kolbe and Pieter-Steph Du Toit – two of South Africa’s best players, and the latter World Rugby’s Player of the Year in 2019 – have been injured, there are a handful of players who you could easily short list for their fantastic seasons.
Franco Mostert has been superb, whether it be from the blindside or at lock, and the only time his engine has appeared to switch off is when the Springbok management has done it themselves by putting him on the bench. Damian De Allende made a remarkable return from burn injuries sustained in Ireland to be one of the Boks’ stand out players this year, and center partner Lukhanyo Am has been at the best that the world has ever seen him. Eben Etzebeth has reached 95 caps in 2021, playing in ten of a possible 11 games so far this year. He was colossal to the South African cause during the British & Irish Lions series, and what shone through aside from his unmatched physicality was his leadership strength within the Springbok side.
But there is just something about Siya Kolisi this year. Siya Kolisi who despite captaining the Springboks to World Cup victory began this season just like every other: low in the pecking order according to the public domain. Siya Kolisi who has played openside but performed as a tackler, a fetcher, a carrier and a master of the clean-out. Siya Kolisi, whose fitness and drive has always been questioned, yet who has started all 11 Tests this year, overcoming injury and Covid.
You are only as good as your last Test, and Kolisi was as good last weekend against Wales as he was in the World Cup final in 2019. With two games to go on the Springbok Test calendar, Siya Kolisi is my South African Rugby Player of the Year, and a World Rugby nomination would also be fitting of his phenomenal season.
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