Siya Kolisi being awarded South African Player of the Year is rightful recognition of the Springbok captain’s efforts in 2021, and is made all the more special in the context of the quality of the other nominees, writes Oliver Keohane.
Siya Kolisi could have, actually – should have – been nominated for World Rugby Player of the Year at the end of 2021. But as the Boks were snubbed, and no South Africans were shortlisted, the next best one could hope for was that the South African rugby fraternity would recognise Kolisi’s colossal efforts, not just as a captain but as a player, in a year where the Springboks won the British & Irish Lions series and beat the All Blacks.
Luckily, the requisite recognition has been given, and it is all the more notable an achievement given the other Springbok stars nominated for the award.
I wrote towards the end of 2021 that Kolisi was my player of the year, but that he topped a list of very strong contenders. The final nominees (aside from Kolisi) would be Lukhanyo Am, Damian de Allende, Makazole Mapimpi and Eben Etzebeth. All four of those players make a strong case for ending 2021 as the best player in their position in the world, not just South Africa.
Lukhanyo Am and Damian De Allende formed an incredible partnership, and while both carried their form seamlessly from the 2019 World Cup into the new, post-Covid Test landscape, Lukhanyo Am had arguably his best season as a Springbok to date.
Equally, Etzebeth, who ended the year just short of 100 Test Caps, probably had his best Springbok season yet. His consistency and mongrel throughout the British & Irish Lions series, Rugby Championship and Autumn Internationals was a spectacle to observe and he took huge physical responsibility in the absence of Pieter-Steph Du Toit and the injuries to other locks at the beginning of the year.
Makozole Mapimpi’s stats speak for themselves as he continued an incredible record of scoring against every international side he has faced, but Mapimpi’s magic has been so much more than just statistics, and his improved high ball game, defensive awareness and kick-chase abilities allowed for not just a speedster on the left, but a symbol of solidity in the Springbok backline.
But captain Kolisi truly was king in 2021. He played in every single match, often playing more than his previously understood 60-minute role, for which he came under tons of (undue) criticism after guiding the Springboks to World Cup victory in 2019. Kolisi in 2021 was a phenomenal captain, yes, but also performed as the complete loose forward. While his strength has always been his running lines and ball-in-hand abilities, his defensive impact was incredible – in terms of the physicality of his hits – while his work rate was outstanding too. Just think back to his try saving tackle on Louis Rees Zemmit in the Boks narrow victory over Wales.
With two games to go on the end of year tour, I wrote the following on Kolisi’s year, in a piece titled Kolisi must be crowned SA Rugby Player of the Year:
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.
Reflecting on these words in the new year, they hold just as much truth and say the same of a player whose determintation met his form to create a stellar season. The view was just further enforced by the fact that in the last two games against Scotland and England (after the piece was written), Kolisi delivered everything of the same.
Hats of to Siya Kolisi, who not only came of age as a Test captain in 2021, but made a mark as one of the world’s best loose forwards and tipped an incredible list of nominees to be recognised as SA’s most valuable player of the year.
Siya Kolisi did some incredible things on the rugby pitch last year.
But for me, this was his best.
Denying the Lions a try before half-time in the second test ultimately decided the Series.
Thoroughly deserves the SA Rugby Player of the Year Award 👏 pic.twitter.com/Tgy17gWXxZ
— Jared Wright (@jaredwright17) January 27, 2022