Siya Kolisi. Picture: GALLO IMAGES
Siya Kolisi. Picture: GALLO IMAGES

London — Siya Kolisi’s appointment as the first black skipper of the South African rugby team is as significant as when Nelson Mandela handed the 1995 World Cup trophy to captain Francois Pienaar, says Bok legend Bryan Habana.

Kolisi, the 26-year-old captain and flanker of the Stormers, had a dream debut as skipper, with the Boks storming back from 24-3 down to beat England 42-39 in a thrilling Test match on Saturday.

Habana, who recently announced his retirement after a 124-Test career scoring a national record of 67 tries and winning the 2007 World Cup, told The Daily Telegraph the significance of coach Rassie Erasmus naming Kolisi transcended the narrow confines of rugby.

"Siya is not just an inspiration for black South Africans, he is an inspiration for SA," said Habana, who played with Kolisi at the Stormers. "That is so important. How he has broken down social barriers is incredible.

"But then, to his credit, he has been vocal about performing to justify where he is.

"With Siya running out last Saturday, hopefully it will allow a new generation to aspire to achieve greatness.

"We have a lot of things to overcome in SA, but this could stand rugby and our country in an unbelievable amount of good stead going forward."

Habana, who is studying for a business management degree but will also spend more time focusing on his charity work, said players of colour had it doubly hard proving they were worthy of wearing the Springbok shirt through ability and not due to the quota system.

An agreement has been struck between the South African Rugby Union and the government that 50% of the team at the 2019 World Cup in Japan will be black.

"As a player of colour, you know there is a massive responsibility on your shoulders when you have that opportunity to wear the Springbok jersey," said Habana.

"No player of colour wants to be seen as a quota player. That term ‘quota player’ is so difficult to speak about because we all just want fair and equal opportunities," he said.

"Given apartheid, it is extremely challenging. It is a unique situation that no other rugby-playing country has to consider or worry about."

Habana took up rugby after being inspired by the image of Mandela handing the trophy of a sport indelibly linked with apartheid to Pienaar.

He said it was difficult for those living outside SA to realise how far determined people like Kolisi and those growing up in townships had travelled in order to succeed.

"If you live in a township and don’t have access to facilities or to public transport, if you don’t have funds available to train at rugby, it can be difficult," said the former Bok. "And it’s hard to conceptualise that to people who have not been embroiled in that environment.

"It is a challenge that is unfortunately always going to be part of SA, given our history."