Article Title

Rugby and Leadership – A Tale of 3 Great Captains

Article Content

According to leadership guru Warren Bennis, “leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.” Great sporting captains have that innate ability to do just this. Here in South Africa we have witnessed numerous leaders connected to the sport of rugby who have displayed such qualities.

I have chosen 3 examples here yet there are many others. The iconic Springboks are not only synonymous with South African rugby but with South African national identity as a whole. I have been researching the significance of rugby in South Africa for the past 25 years and in that time have come across many captains who have shown what it is to be a great leader.


My fascination with South African rugby began with the historic 1906 rugby tour to Britain and France – the first by a South African team overseas. Set against the backdrop of political instability and racial tension within South Africa, the tour took place only four years after the end of the Anglo-Boer War and was used as an opportunity to unify the divided nation.

These first-ever ‘Springboks’ contained players from both sides of the conflict and were captained by an Afrikaans schoolteacher named Paul Roos. Because of his leadership qualities in not only uniting a divided team but also a divided country, Roos has gone on to achieve iconic status within South African rugby folklore.

South Africa was again on the brink of war in 1995 when another Springbok captain displayed great leadership that was perhaps more important than any game of rugby.

Who can forget that iconic image of Nelson Mandela handing Francois Pienaar the Rugby World Cup on that fateful day at Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg? Pienaar, along with Madiba, recognised the power of sport in unifying a nation and as such provided the leadership upon which the ‘Rainbow Nation’ could take shape. Fast forward to recent months and South Africa are again Rugby World Champions. But now they are led by a true icon and role model.

In 2018, Siya Kolisi was appointed captain of the Springboks, becoming the first black man to hold the position. Not only has Kolisi led South Africa to World Cup success on the field of play, more importantly he has led a renewed movement towards equality and understanding in South African society in general.

As such, in December 2019, Siya Kolisi was named in New African magazine’s list of 100 Most Influential Africans. Like Paul Roos and Francois Pienaar before him, our current Springbok captain indeed recognises the qualities required to lead not only a team but also the hopes of a nation.

Rugby and leadership go hand-in-hand and these 3 great captains epitomise this.


  • Angus Opperman
    11 September 2020 at 5:20 pm

    A great read!

Add a review