Razzle ‘em and dazzle ‘em. That’s exactly what the South African Sevens team did over the weekend when they clinched their first Sevens title of the season. It’s hard to believe that such a phenomenal team has emerged out of the same structures that produced the Springboks. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.
The Blitzboks spent the past weekend dazzling and demolishing their opposition as the World Series Sevens kicked off in Dubai. The South Africans claimed their first title of the season, beating Olympic gold medallists Fiji 24-16 in the final on Saturday. The Blitzboks had an emphatic weekend with Seabelo Senatla the star of the show, but every single player on the park contributed when it mattered.
It was a wholesome antidote to the mess of the XVs game and the Sevens side appears to be everything the Boks are not. They are fit, skilful, transformed, cohesive, relatable, approachable and, most important, they are winners.
By their own impeccably high standards, grabbing only bronze in Rio earlier this year was probably a bit of a disappointment, but they seem to have shaken off any rust that the off-season might have chipped on. Making the final – and winning – in their first outing was critical for a side that has so often ended up being the bridesmaid in the World Series Sevens, despite having all the talent in the world to be one of the most dominant teams on the circuit.
It’s hard to imagine that the Blitzboks come from the same system as their XVs cousins, but if they can manage to be so impressive, surely there are lessons to be learnt for the Springboks?
Professionalise, professionalise, professionalise
Sevens operates on a completely different spectrum to the XVs game. Some players do cross over between the full XV game and the truncated version, but this only serves to benefit the unions and franchises. In 2015, the Lions were chief beneficiaries of this cross-pollination with Warren Whiteley, Sampie Mastriet, Mark Richards, and Kwagga Smith being some of the players who made the switch. At the time, coach Johann Ackerman said that while he did not actively seek to recruit from the set-up, it would be foolish to deny the benefits.
“They definitely bring other qualities to the game, they understand space, they understand the off-load game, they know how to defend when there are two to three guys in front of them. I am sure sevens is good for a player’s development, and I know your specialist sevens players will not be available but as long as you have guys that can successfully manoeuvre between the two codes it could be an asset to you.”
While it’d be nigh on impossible for the Boks to run on a similar spectrum – due to domestic rugby commitments – holistic academy structures and regular “A” team fixtures is something the XVs game could learn from. Cricket has benefited greatly from this approach – with annual academy programmes held for three months of the year and “A” teams regularly playing fixtures across the world. Developing young players for the XVs game in a similar way and instilling professionalism separate to the unions right from the start could go a long way in benefiting the Boks.
Be more inclusive
Look at the list of school names that the Blitzboks attended. Very few went to what some might consider “traditional” rugby schools. The talent pool from which the Sevens squad is picked is so much bigger and even when considering the argument that “different skills” are required for the Sevens game, having a guy who can run circles around the opposition when his team gets the ball to him is a pretty nifty asset. Yes, this won’t always work in XVs, but let’s be honest: it seems the bulk of the so-called “rugby” schools play a very specific brand of rugby. There is no fresh perspective. It’s all skop, skiet en donner to get over the try line. Bringing in fresh players from “outside” the status quo is not a bad thing. Of the regular squad members only Kyle Brown (SACS), Chris Dry (Grey, Bloem), Dylan Sage (Wynberg) and Philip Snyman (Grey, Bloem) went to what would be considered “rugby” schools.
The current Springbok squad is certainly more diverse in terms of which schools players come from, but Paul Roos, Grey College, Bishops and SACS still produce far more professional players than anyone else. The Western Province Craven Week side was also made up of players from just seven schools. Surely the balance is skewed?
Conditioning is a top priority
The Blitzboks are quite possibly the best conditioned professional sports team in South Africa. Of course, some of that might happen naturally when a large part of your sport requires you to run a lot, but the team is streets ahead of any other rugby team in how they manage their bodies. Professional sport – and specifically rugby – is no longer just about getting big and pumping iron, despite what the apparent “DNA” of Bok rugby tries to tell you. Athletes need to be aware of their bodies, how they move, how they can move, and they need to train better, not harder. Gone are the days of simply hitting the gym and doing bicep curls. Players who are conditioned both in functional fitness (mobility) and strength training make for better, more effective and explosive athletes. The Blitzboks have this down to a tee. The XVs players – both with the national team and the franchises – could learn a thing or two.
A team that gets together, wins together
The Blitzboks always look like a far more cohesive team compared to their XVs counterparts. Spending time together as a team is one of the most critical parts of this. Now, it is easier for the Blitzboks to do since not all of them are contracted to rugby franchises. But this simply serves to highlight how important a central contracting system is. The more time teams spend together, the more time they have to gel and forge a chemistry that sets them apart from their opposition. It doesn’t even have to be training sessions, it can simply be a team camp of sorts – à la the Proteas. But in order to this, SARU needs to come to the party and implement central contracts. DM
Photo: Justin Geduld of South Africa (r) and Cheslin Kolbe (l) during the 2016 Rio Olympic Games Sevens Rugby Bronze Medal match between South Africa and Japan in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on 11 August 2016 ©Gavin Barker/BackpagePix