The South Africa captain is in top spot on Rugby World magazine’s biennial list of the game’s movers and shakers

Siya Kolisi Named Most Influential Person in Rugby

Every two years Rugby World magazine pulls together a list of the sport’s 50 most influential people and Siya Kolisi is in top spot for 2020.

The South Africa captain guided his country to World Cup glory last November and has since been working tirelessly with his foundation to help those affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Another world champion Springboks skipper, John Smit, said that Kolisi – South Africa’s first black captain – lifting the Webb Ellis Cup would “change people’s lives” and “change the trajectory of our country”.

Kolisi has recognised the significance of that sporting moment and has since proved an inspiration off the field as well as on it. He is a role model in all senses – and adds the title of the most influential person in rugby to a growing list of accolades. Read Stephen Jones’s full profile on the Boks skipper below.

Compiling this list of the 50 most influential people in rugby is an exhaustive process that involves canvassing opinions from those involved in the game around the world. More than 120 people were put forward and the final 50 were revealed in the August 2020 edition of Rugby World.

Kolisi is one of two players in the top ten, with England lock Maro Itoje the other. The pair are joined by coaches Warren Gatland, who will take charge of the British & Irish Lions next year, England’s Eddie Jones and Rassie Erasmus, who is now overseeing South African rugby in a DoR role.

There are also several administrators in the upper echelons of the list. New World Rugby vice-chairman and FFR president Bernard Laporte looks set to push for radical changes in the governing body.

Dr Eanna Falvey, World Rugby’s chief medical officer, is responsible for how the sport deals with Covid-19 as well as law changes to help make the game safer, while Katie Sadleir is in charge of women’s rugby, which is so crucial for the continued growth of the sport.

The top ten is completed by RWC 2023 CEO Claude Atcher and Nick Clarry, who heads up the sports division at CVC, a company that has a growing investment in the sport.

Here’s the top ten of Rugby World’s Most Influential People in Rugby in 2020…

  1. Siya Kolisi
  2. Bernard Laporte
  3. Maro Itoje
  4. Warren Gatland
  5. Nick Clarry
  6. Rassie Erasmus
  7. Claude Atcher
  8. Eddie Jones
  9. Dr Eanna Falvey
  10. Katie Sadleir

And here Rugby World columnist Stephen Jones explains why Kolisi topped the list.

Siya Kolisi Named Most Influential Person in Rugby

Siya Kolisi, of South Africa – but now one of rugby’s universal soldiers – stands at No 1 in our most influential list, with Maro Itoje close behind at No 3. Here we have two wonderful men, two men who have always transcended the sport itself, because not only are they both spectacularly good players but they know where the sport fits in the general landscape and are clever enough to be influential away from the rectangle of play.

The intriguing probability now rises that they will meet as captains in the British & Irish Lions Test series next year, and what an image that will provide. Kolisi, barring injury, will surely lead the Springboks in the series and Itoje is a big favourite at the bookmakers to be Lions captain. It will be a supercharged Test series but to have two of our top three in charge of the teams would be epic.

Clearly, the symbolism of teams at the very top of rugby being led by black players is of mighty significance. Not least because the series takes place in South Africa where, as it must be remembered, rugby was once deemed by the non-white population as almost as big an instrument of apartheid as the police or army. And also because of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Kolisi is definitely the most influential man in rugby at the moment. He’s also probably the most visionary and the most courageous.

Some of us once went on a trip to Zwide near Port Elizabeth, Kolisi’s home township, and with respect you’d never call it salubrious, even now. He was born in poverty to a schoolboy father and teenage mother, the latter dying when he was 15. In his early twenties, he set about finding his half-siblings and has since officially adopted them, bringing them into his own household with his wife and two children.

Related: Siya Kolisi’s journey from township to Test star

He clearly has a highly developed social conscience in all aspects. During the Covid-19 crisis, he has played a major role in keeping supplies rolling to hospitals and those needing treatment in South Africa, as well as delivering food parcels to townships. He has also joined the Pandemic Action Network (PAN), which seeks to codify all the torrents of advice and best practice for those who may be confused about the pandemic or not have the best access to advice and treatment.

Kolisi has been involved in myriad local and national projects as well. To be captain of his country is an office that must be performed every day.

“We can use our platforms to help as many people as we can,” he has said of PAN, “because this is a fight for humanity, it doesn’t matter where you are from.”

Siya Kolisi Named Most Influential Person in Rugby

Helping hand: Siya Kolisi hands out food parcels to residents of Zandspruit in April (Getty Images)

Since he lifted the Webb Ellis Cup in Yokohama last year, he has won many individual awards, and been feted by political leaders and a range of other bodies. The Rugby Union Writers’ Club voted him the winner of the Pat Marshall Memorial Award – the oldest individual award in the sport and one that’s been given to all the greats – and he was also named Peace and Sport ‘Champion of the Year’, a major award in France.

The power of the pictures of him leading the celebrations in Yokohama is probably difficult to overstate. Indeed, as he lifted the trophy to mark a hat-trick of Springbok World Cup titles, you recalled the two previous emotional occasions.

The 1995 presentation saw Francois Pienaar and Nelson Mandela meet together on the podium, this at a time when it was by no means guaranteed that there would not be some internecine strife in the country so soon after the rise to power of the ANC. Then in 2007, we saw John Smit on the podium in Paris linking hands with the then president Thabo Mbeki.

Kolisi is a symbol of rugby excellence and political power, powerful for all those who suffered under apartheid as well as those who visited South Africa under apartheid and had the outrageous fortune to go back as the country, often painfully, made the transition away from apartheid to a political justice, even if social justice remains thin on the ground.

Siya Kolisi

Slide show: Siya Kolisi scores a try against Namibia at RWC 2019 (Getty Images)

For journalists of a certain era, it has been easily the biggest story of our sporting lives, way bigger than anything that has happened in these islands, and through most of it you could not place rugby itself as more than one third of the story in terms of significance. There are those of us who have grown to love the place, to feel passionately for it and to mourn for its vicissitudes.

How much has it changed? Life in South Africa continues to brass people off in massive ways, but at least divisions on racial lines are not so alarming as they once were. Kolisi appreciates the power of rugby, and has the standing and authority and intelligence to be a statesman as well, to know exactly what he is saying and why it means everything. You also get the distinct impression from this great man that he is saying exactly what he believes, with no gilding of his words for anyone’s consumption.

His first match as South Africa captain was against England in 2018 in Johannesburg. Those of us lucky enough to be there will never forget it, never forget how well he spoke before that game. But I was more intrigued to see the reaction to him in Bloemfontein for the second Test. Bloem is a rather scruffy if endearing place up country, not exactly in past days an area that led the way when it came to emancipation.

Before that Test match in 2018, as usual great lines of bakkies and other transport brought the farmers and other non-townies into the game, they stood in the car parks, munching braais and crushing empty beer cans in their fists.

Tendai Mtawarira

Milestone: Tendai Mtawarira with his children aead of his 100th Test (Getty Images)

What did they think of their country’s first black captain? What would the atmosphere be like in the ground? The answer was that it was sensational and, as far as I could see, there was great respect not only when Kolisi took the field but when we had another moment of significance.

The match marked the 100th cap for the magnificent Tendai ‘Beast’ Mtawarira. The warrior came on with his young children, Wangu and Talumba, who were taking part in the pre-match all dressed up in South African colours. This was all a stirring sight. The images were inspiring.

For a long time, it seemed that the mixing of the races would have no effect whatsoever on the public address system, which continued to thunder out white American/British rock music, with thumping base lines. Just as we despaired that any of the music would reflect South Africa’s gorgeous heritage, they played the sublime Pata Pata by the great Miriam Makeba. I just loved that whole day, although not as much as Kolisi, whose team won the match to take the series.

What is next for our ‘most influential’? He and wife Rachel work hard on the Kolisi Foundation, which launched in March with “a vision to change the narrative of inequality for people in vulnerable and disadvantaged communities in South Africa by providing assistance and opportunities”.

Apparently, Kolisi is still besieged with requests and could be at any one of ten functions every week at all points across the world. You hope that the keeper of his diary is of maximum efficiency and you would also trust that Kolisi, as he must, has learnt to say no.

His sporting life may be in abeyance at the moment, but you also realise how valuable the Lions tour will be to South Africa next year. Not only will it bring in the lifeblood of foreign currency from the tens of thousands of happy British and Irish tourists, but it will also keep, the focus of the excellent Springboks squad, which had the Lions not been arriving two years after the World Cup may have broken up too early. If there is a Lions tour on its way, then not even those with World Cup winners’ medals can say that they won everything.

On the subject of winning everything, Kolisi must have a mantelpiece the size of a runway. As a player he is excellent; possibly not due one of those rare seats in the pantheon but still formidable.

What a transformation in his life, and what a transformation he has helped bring to the lives of others. What a man, one of rugby’s greatest. And great work by our panel to elevate the right man.

And what a prospect that Itoje, another great man, will be trying to knock Kolisi off his sporting altar in the near future, possibly as leader.

Congratulations Siya, for magic moments and for inspiring millions.

This article originally appeared in the August 2020 edition of Rugby World magazine.

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