Fiji are top of the Sevens Series log after the first round of fixtures. For the Blitzboks, the chemistry of their newly recruited XV-man converts clearly hasn’t been found yet, but with the tournament now shifting to home soil, perhaps they’ll find their mojo. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.
The first round of the Sevens World Series is done and dusted and Fiji are sitting pretty on 22 points. They are followed by England (19), USA (14), New Zealand (15), and South Africa (13) as the tournament moves to South Africa, with Cape Town set to host a sell-out series this coming weekend.
With the woes of the World Cup now behind South African rugby, those looking for a distraction will be firmly fixated on the next nine rounds of the Sevens World Series, because it will culminate with a shot at a gold medal at the Rio Olympics next year.
South Africa were the darlings of the Commonwealth tournament in 2014, and clinched gold, but they have a lot of hard work ahead of them if they hope to emulate that feat. When they return to home soil, they might have to do so without some of their star players. Cecil Afrika and Werner Kok will undergo injury assessments in Cape Town, with Kok’s knee injured and Afrika struggling with a hamstring strain. It is still early in the season, but every move is watched a little bit more carefully with Rio looming, and we’ve picked five talking points from the weekend’s action.
1) South Africa impressive, but looking a bit rusty
South Africa’s new recruits, plucked from the XV-man teams across the country, seemed to have settled into the squad nicely. It takes time to build chemistry and telepathy, though, and South Africa have yet to start running like the well-oiled Sevens machine they can be. They got the tournament off to a solid start, going unbeaten through the pool stages, but were not without mistakes. In the quarterfinal against the USA, things came undone. In the first 90 seconds of their match against the Eagles, the conceded three turnovers and missed a number of tackles. The Blitzboks got into their stride the longer they played but are clearly far from a completed unit. Francois Hougaard is one of those players and admitted that it’s challenging switching gears.
“If you play against players with good feet who can utilise that space, that can make it so difficult. That is where you have to learn to adapt to the system. We have saying which is ‘you can beat the individual but never beat the system’.
“It always looks so easy when you watch on TV, it’s just a bunch of guys running around. But it is actually quite technical, if you start getting into the system,” said Hougaard.
In the plate playoff against Australia, South Africa started to look a little bit more cohesive with the fleet-footed Cheslin Kolbe particularly impressive. It was Kolbe who wormed himself into space and offloaded to Kwagga Smith, to ensure they can score under the poles, to put South Africa level with Australia at full-time, and take the game to 14-14. It seems simple, but it is these finer details that will knit their chemistry into something magical.
2) There’s no shame in losing to the United States
South Africa headed into their quarterfinal clash against the USA unbeaten and were leading 19-7 with just four minutes to go. South Africa looked on course for a semi-finals spot but a costly mistake from Seabelo Senatla, where he tumbled into Carlin Isles, saw him sent to the sin bin. USA soon pounced, with the Blitzboks conceding two tries in quick succession. As already mentioned, the South African Sevens team looked a little bit rusty, but there is not much shame in having lost to America. Not only did the USA beat New Zealand in the tournament, they have also been building a streamlined Sevens machine for years, with Olympic Gold being the ultimate goal.
Last year, they beat Australia to earn their first Cup and finished sixth on the World Series Log. Since 2012, they have had contracts funded by the US Olympic Committee with the sole purpose of training for the Olympics. If you are worried that this might be another “Japan” moment in what has been a grim year for South African rugby, rest assured that this win was no fluke.
3) Fiji play like champions
Fiji beat England 28-17 after leading 28-7 at the break. England only really made up some of the deficit because Fiji let their foot of the gas a little, because they knew they could. Having won the tournament last year, Fiji looked impressive, and have a big lead after round one of the tournament.
It’s a long road to Rio and injuries, as well as upsets, will all conspire to make life tough for the Sevens teams. Keeping the momentum going, though, will go a long way in ensuring the challenge at the Olympics seem a little bit less daunting.
4) New Zealand hampered by injuries
Ouch! New Zealand have only five fit players after the first round of fixtures in Dubai. Coach Gordon Tietjens even asked tournament directors if they could forfeit their playoff match against the USA because of it. Things were so bad that Sherwin Stowers was playing with a broken arm.
“I’ve never been in a tournament where we were so decimated by injuries,” Tietjens said.
“Even in the last game when we were playing for third, a guy broke his arm. Sherwin Stowers broke his arm, so we’ve got six out now. It’s crazy.
“We were playing with five men at one stage because someone got yellow carded. It’s been the worst tournament I’ve ever [been a part of]. I can honestly say I’ve got five fit, uninjured players.”
New Zealand have just a few days to call-up replacements as the next round looms in Cape Town.
5) The format is a bit like school sport, or an Oprah episode
You know, that episode where everyone “gets something”. It’s not a bad thing, the plate, bowl, wine glass, beer mug and whatever other eating implement that is handed out at these tournament all count for something. It is one of the reasons why the Sevens is so successful; every single game has context. Still, perhaps it would be better if teams just played each other for a place finish instead of giving these “trophies” a name. DM
Photo: South Africa’s players celebrate with their medals after defeating New Zealand in the gold medal match of the Rugby Sevens at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland, July 27, 2014. REUTERS/Russell Cheyne.