NELSPRUIT, South Africa (Reuters) - If Siya Kolisi wins his first South Africa cap on Saturday, it will complete a remarkable story of a player who overcame dire poverty in the black townships of the Eastern Cape to become a symbol of the potential of sport.
Brought up by his grandmother and often barred from primary school because there was not enough money to pay for fees, loose forward Kolisi is one of two uncapped players named in the matchday 23 for the test against Scotland in Nelspruit.
“It will be a special day for him,” Springboks captain Jean de Villiers said on Friday of his Stormers team mate. “He didn’t have the opportunities we had as kids but he has made his mark.”
Kolisi is likely to get a run-out off the bench in the test, which falls the day before his 22nd birthday, and while his grandmother is no longer alive to see him step into the international arena, he is flying in his father for the match.
It will be only the second time his father, who had to leave Kolisi behind in Port Elizabeth to seek work in Cape Town, has seen him play.
“He is going to be more emotional than me, I mean I‘m the first Springbok from the township where I come from,” Kolisi told reporters earlier this week.
“He is going to be a very proud dad, and he is going to cry a bit and I will probably join him.”
Kolisi, who said he owed a lot to his grandmother, hails from one of the few black areas in South Africa where rugby, seen mostly as the preserve of the country’s minority white populace, is as popular as football.
“I‘m grateful to her (grandmother), because she did everything she could to give me a life. She would go without food so that I could eat,” he said in a recent interview.
He showed a natural flair from the first time he played and aged 13 won a scholarship to a top rugby-playing high school.
“I couldn’t speak a word of English when I first attended Grey High, but my mates taught me and helped me with homework,” he said.
Admired for his ball-carrying skills, Kolisi rose to prominence last year when he filled in for the injured Schalk Burger at the Stormers.
His rise to the top of South African rugby comes in a country where political change has not been matched by social equality.
“It is a great thing for me and I have to be a role model. As a Springbok, it is not only about rugby, it’s the things you do off the field,” he said.
This week he got to room with the captain ahead of the match against the Scots.
“It’s a great success story, it’s South Africa in a nutshell,” De Villiers told a news conference. “It will be a special day for him, what a nice story.”
Editing by Sonia Oxley