Two leaders, one from the Zwide township in a Port Elizabeth, the other raised on a deer farm in Reporoa on New Zealand’s Central Plateau, do battle in Paris on Sunday (AEDT) sharing the weight of national expectation and mutual admiration.
One had to struggle to overcome his difficult start to life, the other his own setbacks – including a broken neck that threatened his career and a rugby world that only 18 months ago was telling him he was cooked.
There are many differences between the Springboks’ No.6 Siya Kolisi and All Blacks No.7 Sam Cane and plenty of those can be attributed to their upbringings.
Kolisi lost his mum at 15, had a fractured and problematic relationship with his father, and was raised by his grandmother. He fought his way up through significant adversity to become a talisman for his nation, a potential future President.
Nick Mallett said Kolisi’s lifting of the World Cup trophy four years ago had a significant impact on the Springboks standing within the black South African community and as a force for unity in his nation.
Kolisi is also a natural speaker – he’s had to far more effusive than his more guarded rival captain in Sunday’s game.
South Africa got the leader they needed in Kolisi – the first black man to carry the burden and honour of that job in South Africa. New Zealand got the one they needed as well as a replacement for Kieran Read.
“I think it certainly helps being a small country boy deep down,” Cane told reporters when he was promoted by Ian Foster.
“I’d like to think I got selected for this role because of the person I am – and because of that I don’t really want to change.
“Obviously, I’m doing a few things alright.”
While Cane can be dour and direct, Kolisi can turn a straightforward press conference question into a rallying cry – a goosebump raising moment in history.
It was that way after the semi-final defeat of England where he gave an incredible answer when asked about departing Springboks coach Jacques Nienaber and the impact he’s had on him since they first met when Kolisi was 18.
“He’s a special coach and a special human being, an amazing father and a great husband,” Kolisi ended his answer. “I will always be thankful. When I first met him I couldn’t tackle.”
And Kolisi was at it again when asked about Cane – managing to touch on two significant examples that seemed roadblocks in his path to Sunday’s final.
The first was back in 2018 when Cane suffered a broken neck in a collision with South African Francois Louw during the All Blacks’ 32-30 win over the Springboks in his 60th Test, in Pretoria.
He escaped nerve damage which could have paralysed him but then faced the prospect of the bone not healing properly, an issue which has ended others careers. Cane was out of the game for eight months before returning in Super Rugby for the Chiefs.
“To be honest rugby went away from my mind real quick when they told me post-scan ‘you’ve broken your neck’. That was a little bit scary,” he told Stuff in 2019. “At the same time I could feel my fingers, my toes and everything. I never had a horror moment where I was dealing with paralysis as a reality.
“I was aware of the worst-case scenario early, but to me the worst-case scenario still wasn’t as bad as what it could have been.”
Kolisi was asked about Cane this week, and the job he’s done to get the All Blacks to final when many had written them, and Cane in particular, off.
“I know what a decent player Sam Cane is. I saw him in hospital and remember speaking to him,” Kolisi said of visiting Cane after the 2018 incident.
“He’s had a lot of criticism about how he wasn’t playing well. But he worked and just put his head down and has played amazingly well and now he is here,” Kolisi added.
“People always focus about what you do on the field, but it’s the battle off the field that can take you to the next level. I’ve known him a long time and I respect him a lot.
“The fight he has shown on and off the field, the way he has led the team has been amazing, and with all the other leaders he has around him. He has done amazingly well and that’s why they are where they are today.
“It’s not easy. They have to play for a country that has been successful for so many years. That takes a lot out of you. It does get lonely, it does get dark. You sit there and think, ‘am I capable of doing this?’, but then you have good men around you like I do who support you all the time.
“They also have stuck together. That’s what makes them a special team.”
Told of Kolisi’s supportive words, Cane replied: “It doesn’t surprise me with Siya. He’s an exceptional human. Our relationships goes back a long way now. We both came onto the international scene at similar times.
“I’ve got massive respect for him coming to visit me in hospital. I was pretty drugged up at that stage so only have faint memories of that. I think Rassie [Erasmus] and Francois Louw came as well, a few of those South African boys. That’s why there’s so much respect between us off the field, we always have a beer after the game, for as long as the rivalry has been there.
“Everyone knows Siya is an inspirational skipper and big part of their team. When he speaks, he demands respect. That is just seeing how he speaks to the public. I’ll look forward to another battle with him. The respect is mutual.”
Cane has suffered his share of disrespect over the past 18 months, as Kolisi alluded to.
There was, of course, the Peter O’Mahony ‘shit Richie McCaw sledge’ that must have made the All Blacks kicking the Irish out of the tournament particularly sweet.
Just as brutal (if not as succinct) was the judgement of former Lions fly-half Stuart Barnes, who is in Paris covering the World Cup as a writer for The Times.
Barnes took a few jabs at Cane during last year’s series loss to Ireland.
He suggested Cane “may be a fine leader of rugby players but he is not good enough to play for the All Blacks,” adding “against the Springbok captain, Siya Kolisi, Cane would struggle to compete.”
Barnes thought Foster too sentimental in sticking with his captain through a dip in form.
“If New Zealand are to find their best back-row blend before next year’s World Cup, the hard call has to be made, with Cane relegated to the bench or jettisoned completely.
“Loyalty is a great trait. It can also be a fundamental weakness in a manager. There is a murky area, between being loyal and ruthless.
“Foster may seem [a] decent man but innate decency doesn’t win you trophies.”
Innate decency probably doesn’t lose you tittles either – and at least one decent man in Kolisi or Cane will be celebrating a Saturday night to remember in Paris.