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Black rugby player awaits moment with Springboks

Friday - 6/14/2013, 4:51pm  ET

A portrait representing former president Nelson Mandela is installed on the windows of a building in downtown Cape Town, South Africa Thursday, June 13, 2013. Mandela is spending a sixth day in the hospital and while there was no immediate update on his health Thursday, President Jacob Zuma on Wednesday reported that Mandela was responding better to treatment for a recurring lung infection. (AP Photo)

AP Sports Writer

NELSPRUIT, South Africa (AP) -- This is part of the vision Nelson Mandela had for South Africa's national rugby team.

A black player is set to make his debut with the Springboks on Saturday after rising from a poor township in the home province of the former president and anti-apartheid icon.

Once closely associated with the apartheid government, the Springboks are often seen as an indicator of South African race relations.

The team has selected black players before and has long moved past the all-white squads of the apartheid years, but the story of Siya Kolisi resonates in its own way. The 21-year-old flanker is to take his place on the Boks' bench this weekend against Scotland and likely play when the team makes its debut in the northeast city of in Nelspruit.

Kolisi is from the Zwide township in Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape province, the kind of poor region Mandela wanted South African rugby to reach. Kolisi embodied the hope that the Springboks would reinvent themselves as a team that celebrated South Africa's diversity and no longer contributed to its divisions.

"It'll be a special day tomorrow for Siya. I think it's a great story. I think it's a great success story," South Africa captain Jean de Villiers said Friday. "I think it is South Africa in a nutshell, hey? Someone that didn't have the opportunities that maybe I had growing up."

Kolisi and De Villiers represent something Mandela hoped for from the Springboks when he famously embraced the team at the 1995 Rugby World Cup. But their paths to this point couldn't have been more different. Kolisi fought to be recognized playing in Zwide, a rugby backwater, while De Villiers attended Stellenbosch University, one of South Africa's most famous rugby academies.

This week, they have shared a hotel room as Springboks teammates.

Kolisi has paid for his father, with organizing help from the South African Rugby Union, to attend the test and watch his son play rugby for only the second time. It will be the first time Fezakele Kolisi flies.

The 94-year-old Mandela remains in the hospital for a recurring lung infection, leaving South Africans fearing for the health of their ailing father figure. De Villiers said the Springboks will continue to honor Mandela -- affectionately referred to by his clan name Madiba -- on the field.

The Springboks maybe share a closer bond with Mandela than any other team in South Africa.

"Madiba has done so much for this country, he's an unbelievable person and I've had the honor of meeting him as well," De Villiers said. "I've got a photo with him, myself and the World Cup, which is quite a special photo. He's just a great guy.

"Death is something that is going to happen to all of us and he's sick at this stage, but he's a fighter. He showed throughout his life ... and hopefully he can hang in there and enjoy the team with his family, and people can give him the space that he needs. A great person. I suppose, from a Springbok point of view, all we can do is try and honor him as much as we can on the rugby field."

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