Kolisi on historic mission as Boks go from 'dark place to good space'

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Johannesburg (AFP) - Siya Kolisi dreams of becoming the first black Springboks skipper to lift the Rugby World Cup trophy, and complete the remarkable transformation of the team from "a dark place to a good space".

South Africa and defending champions New Zealand, who clash on September 21 in a blockbuster Pool B opener in Japan, look set to reach the quarter-finals at the expense of Italy, Canada and Namibia.

"If we are lucky and avoid injuries, we should go far," says coach Rassie Erasmus without publicly setting a target for a nation that have been champions twice.

Flanker Kolisi is "excited and nervous" ahead of the World Cup, adding: "I get wonderful support and advice from my team-mates and there is no reason to fear anyone."

South Africa became a laughing stock of world rugby two years ago after a 57-0 thrashing away to arch-rivals New Zealand, the heaviest loss suffered by the green and gold in their 128-year history.

Officials reacted to the humiliation by firing coach Allister Coetzee early last year and hiring Erasmus, a former Springboks flanker.

Among the first decisions Erasmus made was choosing Kolisi, then 26, as the first black Test captain of the Springboks.

It was a huge progressive step in the often tortoise-like advance from an all-white to a racially balanced squad that reflected a population that is 92 percent black.

There are a record 11 black Springboks in the 31-man squad that arrived in Japan.

It is not the 50 percent black representation the government sought, but there is general acceptance that Erasmus has taken racial transformation seriously and up to nine could make the matchday 23.

A meticulous planner, Erasmus has also brought calm to the World Cup buildup where previously there often was chaos, notably in 2003.

Then, the "team building" exercises of coach Rudolf Straeuli included forcing his squad to swim in freezing mid-winter conditions and huddle near-naked in a cave.

"Rassie has taken us out of a dark space and put us in a good place," said South African rugby boss Mark Alexander after the Springboks won the single-round 2019 Rugby Championship last month.

Erasmus stresses that "we are in with a much better chance of winning the World Cup now than 18 months ago, but I would not call us favourites.

"While winning the Championship for the first time was great having played two of our three matches away, that counts for nothing now.

- 'Miraculous' -

"Our preparations have gone exactly to plan, so if things do not go our way, we can only point fingers at ourselves."

While there were decisive victories over Australia and Argentina in the Championship, it was a 16-16 draw away to reigning world champions New Zealand that pleased South African supporters most.

In two visits since the 57-point drubbing, the Springboks have beaten the All Blacks by two points and drawn in a turnaround described by South African pundits as "miraculous".

Fourteen of the matchday 23 humiliated near Auckland in September 2017 are in Japan -- so how did Erasmus put the spring back in the Boks?

Who better to judge than a former foe, long-time New Zealand scrum-half Justin Marshall, now a TV analyst.

"Rassie has taken the Springboks away from a game plan almost totally reliant on tactical kicking," he said during a recent visit to South Africa.

"South Africa won the World Cup twice largely with game plans based on kicking for territory and forcing opponents into errors.

"Now, there is less predictability from the Springboks and it is wonderful to see the great rivalry between them and the All Blacks reignited.

"Wellington was buzzing ahead of the recent Test and my assessment of the South Africans is that they are a happy, confident squad."

The biggest selection headache for Erasmus is who to pick on the right wing between in-form contenders Cheslin Kolbe and Sibusiso Nkosi.

Full-back Willie le Roux, centres Lukanyo Am and Damian de Allende, left wing Makazole Mapimpi, fly-half Handre Pollard and scrum-half Faf de Klerk should complete the backline.

The pack could include props Tendai Mtawarira or Steven Kitshoff and Trevor Nyakane, hooker Malcolm Marx, locks Eben Etzebeth and Franco Mostert, with Kolisi, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Duane Vermeulen manning the back row.

If the Springboks conquer the world this November it will maintain a sequence of winning the competition every 12 years having previously triumphed in 1995 and 2007.

South Africans will also be encouraged by the late inclusion of Irishman Felix Jones in the coaching team as another Jones, Australian Eddie, assisted Jake White in the triumphant 2007 campaign.