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'His growth as a disciple of Jesus has been amazing': Chaplain praises Rugby World Cup winner Siya Kolisi

by Will Hobbs

On Saturday night in Paris, sporting history was made as the South African men's rugby team, better known as the Springboks, clinched the Rugby World Cup for a record-breaking fourth time.

In defeating their greatest rivals, the All Blacks, 12-11, they also became only the second team ever to defend the title, which they won in Japan four years ago, at the expense of England. 

They were led to both titles by captain and Christian believer Siya Kolisi, who has regularly taken opportunities on the pitch, during interviews and on social media to praise and thank the Lord Jesus and dedicate everything to him.

Bruce Nadin, a sports chaplain who pastors in South Africa at Stellenbosch FC, has been able to track Kolisi's story of "full surrender to Christ".

"His growth as a disciple of Jesus has been amazing. It's so easy to go out on the field, you know, and say, I give all the glory and honour to God, et cetera, et cetera when you're winning. But what I'd say about Siya is that he's authentically trying to live out his faith.

"The biggest impact I believe he's having is not so much with his words, but actually, with his actions as a leader, both on the field, but I think across the nations. He is a real symbol of hope."

"He never ceases to highlight the challenges the country faces and how far it still needs to go to become everything God wants it to be. And I think, in that sense, his faith is lived out in a very real way. He's an incredibly humble guy."

Kolisi was raised by his church-going grandmother after his father left home when he was young. He has spoken publicly at Hillsong events about how his father would abuse his mother and how, aged five, he would find his mother's teeth on the street. 

His family could rarely afford food or clothes for school and he would wear his Aunt's shoes to school. His grandmother and mother both passed away in his school years. 

In 2015, Kolisi recommitted to following Christ, whom he credits his grandmother modelling to him for the very start of his life, but he admitted he felt he had turned his back on. He has been honest about battles with alcohol and told BBC Sport in a 2021 interview: "I want people to know that I'm a sinner". 

Nadin told Pemier that Christian fans and media must be careful to avoid putting Kolisi on a pedestal. 

"A [South African] Christian magazine a couple of years ago had a headline with him on the front, and it said, 'The hope of the nation', and I know Siya would say he's not. Jesus is the hope of the nation, and as a sports chaplain who mentors and disciples Christian athletes, I think we need to remember he's still a young man, and he's had to spend the last eight, nine years of his life with an incredible profile, incredible responsibility.

"And largely speaking, he's handled that really well. But to place that level of expectation on him when the job's already been done by Jesus, I think it's a little bit unrealistic."

Prior to the pandemic, Nadin organised The Locker Room, a series of events for sports people to gather privately to worship together, hear testimony from a fellow athlete, and then have a word of encouragement from God's Word.

Nadin said Kolisi, who was in attendance a number of times, appreciated the rarety of being able to focus purely on Christ without distraction. 

"I think he enjoyed just coming and the focus being on Jesus. So that was the whole aim for us when we organise these events, so the high profile guys could come into the space because sadly, even in our churches here in South Africa, often the guys will go to church and they'll get jumped on by people attending the church, having pictures taken, wanting autographs.

"To be able to create a space where they're not the centre of attention, where they can just be themselves, was really important for us." 

Nadin says Christians need to remember that sportspeople, however much they are celebrated, require the same prayers as all other believers. 

"We're just ordinary, everyday pilgrims seeking to work out what it means to follow Jesus, carrying our own baggage, you know, our own defaults towards particular sins.

"And often, our athletes attempt to do this in the public spotlight. And sport, particularly contact sports, is emotional. And it doesn't always bring the best out in us in the moment, as our characters get tested. And I think we actually have to pray for ourselves that we don't judge too harshly. What do we do when somebody cuts us up on the road? How do we react in our cars or in other situations where things don't go our way?

"So I'd say pray for them. Pray that they wouldn't find their identity primarily in their performance or in what people say about them, or in their celebrity or in what they possess. But that they would find it secure in the person of Jesus."

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