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Four World Series talking points as Blitzboks stumble at the final hurdle in London Sevens

Four World Series talking points as Blitzboks stumble at the final hurdle in London Sevens
Seabelo Senatla of South Africa dives to score a try against New Zealand during the gold medal match of the Rugby Sevens at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. (Photo: Russel Cheyne / Reuters)

Scotland snatched a last-grasp 27-26 win over the Blitzboks in the final round of the World Series Sevens in London on Sunday. It’s been an up and down season for South Africa, but if they can iron out a few small kinks, there’s no reason they shouldn’t start dreaming of gold. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.

South Africa stumbled at the final hurdle during the London Sevens, losing the final 26-27 against Scotland at Twickenham on Sunday. Having already conceded the overall World Series title to Fiji, the loss against Scotland rubbed salt in their wounds and will raise just the slightest alarm as Rio Olympics preparation enters full swing. Throughout the series, South Africa have, at times, struggled to maintain their composure, despite being one of the best drilled teams of the tournament.

Take nothing away from Scotland, they were exceptional and outsmarted South Africa at every turn, but the Blitzboks have reason to be disappointed, especially as they had very nearly stuttered early on during the London Sevens.

During the pool stages, South Africa had survived a scare against the US, winning 14-10 largely thanks to some wayward kicking from their opponents. However, they recovered on day two, beating Argentina 21-19 and World Series title winners Fiji 26-21 to secure their spot in the finals of the London Sevens.

Against Scotland, they could have shaken all these near defeats off and they very nearly did. The Blitzboks opened the scoring after turning over possession through Francois Hougaard and getting the ball out to Seabelo Senatla who dotted down underneath the poles and Cecil Afrika slotted over for the full seven points. Scotland responded with a try a few seconds later, but missed their conversion, meaning South Africa held the slightest advantage as the first half of the final winded down.

Scotland continued to control possession and piled pressure on the Blitzboks and, with just over three minutes to go, Scotland took the unique approach of pushing their way over the line with a driving maul, putting them 10-7 ahead after yet another missed conversion.

South Africa continued to absorb the pressure in the second half and found a way through inside the seventh minute with a bit of exceptional handling from Kyle Brown, Senatla and Cecil Afrika. From deep inside their own half, South Africa took advantage of a penalty with an acute understanding of pace and chemistry between the Blitzboks, Roscko Speckman went over the line. A few minutes later, an interception from Cecil Afrika seemed to have sealed the deal for the Blitzboks as they led 21-10.

But Scotland had other plans. James Flemming wriggled his way out of an Afrika and Senatla double team and rolled over for another try with just two minutes to go, narrowing the gap to 21-15 after another missed conversion. The to-and-fro continued and one Speckman try was nullified by two quick tries from Scotland to seal a thrilling 26-27 win.

The disappointing loss highlighted a few key lessons for the Blitzboks who now get serious about their Olympics preparations. Here are four talking points.

Beating physical teams like Samoa is possible without Seabelo Senatla

At the Paris Sevens, the Blitzboks came up short against eventual tournament winners Samoa. The island side’s physicality stumped the speedy and cunning Blitzboks whose game plan relied heavily on Senatla making a break and bolting for the try line. They simply could not find space, but it was a different story when the two teams met again this weekend in the pool stages. South Africa won 22-0, without Senatla in their midst. While the flier would walk into any sevens side in the world, his absence actually seemed to be in South Africa’s favour over the weekend, as they had to think a bit more carefully of how to break the Samoan line of defence.

Olympic selection could be a bit of a headache

There are a few names that pick themselves every time a Blitzboks side is selected, provided they are not injured. Kyle Brown, Chris Dry, Seabelo Senatla and Cecil Afrika are among them. But during this season’s World Series players like Dylan Sage, Tim Agaba and even Francois Hougaard, all playing in the competition for the first time, have made an impact. South Africa have shown that they have immense depth in the Sevens system, especially when considering there are still players recovering from injury.

Players like Frankie Horne and Branco du Preez are still out injured though and will get a final chance to stake their claim for Olympic selection if they can recover in time for the Roma Sevens invitational in June.

The margins for error in Sevens are so small

Making a mistake in Sevens can be extremely costly, no matter who you come up against. In the context of the World Series, you might have time to recover from this as the tournament goes on, but during the Olympics, there will be no such luxuries. One niggle that South Africa definitely need to work on is their conversions. There are plenty of factors which determine whether or not a kick goes over, but South Africa missed quite a few kicks during this year’s tournament. The missed conversion against Scotland in the final was one example of just how small these margins are. South Africa missed 33% of their conversions, compared to champions Fiji who missed just 29%. While the four percent difference might not have helped them to become overall champions, it’s these kind of small details that need a bit of tweaking when it comes to the demanding Olympics format.

The brick wall of South Africa’s defence

If we’re going to criticise, we should also praise. South Africa’s defence is one of the most consistent and well-drilled on the Sevens circuit. With 1,195 tackles made this season, more than any other team, their physical defence is one of their greatest strengths. Having the agility and the physicality to stop teams in their tracks will be key for the Blitzboks in the Olympics and if they can iron out the other kinks, they can set their sights on a medal. DM

Photo: Seabelo Senatla of South Africa dives to score a try against New Zealand during the gold medal match of the Rugby Sevens at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland, July 27, 2014. REUTERS/Russell Cheyne

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