South Africa lost the Cape Town leg of the World Series Sevens to England on Sunday, but there is much about this team to get excited about. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.
For two weekends in a row, the Blitzboks dished up a rugby lesson at the HSBC World Sevens Series. They have also sent out a strong message to anyone who wants to challenge them: this is our season, come get us. On Sunday at the final of the Cape Town leg of the Sevens, England rose to that challenge as they triumphed 17-19 to clinch the crown.
The hosts headed into the final at the Cape Town Sevens after a solid showing in the group stages and faced an England side who had to fight hard in the heat of the Mother City. All that fight – including a comeback from 19-0 in the quarters against Fiji – set them up for what was a tightly tussled clash.
Despite the home crowd advantage, South Africa were very much at a disadvantage on the pitch, having lost Kyle Brown through injury while talisman Seabelo Senatla was on the bench, also not 100% fit.
Early pressure from England was soon overturned as some crafty work from Branco du Preez and Kwagga Smith saw Chris Dry burst free and cruise over the whitewash to put South Africa ahead. But England soon bounced back with Richard de Carpentier finding space and jotting down almost right under the sticks. With the conversion good, the visitors were two points clear. Just a few minutes later a wide pass found Dan Norton unmarked and England were 5-12 in front just before the hooter for the break sounded. There was still time for South Africa to attempt to manufacture something from the kick-off right before teams took a breather, but they only managed to usher the ball into touch.
It didn’t take long after the restart for South Africa to put the scores level. From the kindest bounce you could wish for, Rosco Specman pounced and touched down under the sticks. But the pressure was far from over and England’s persistence, despite clearly being knackered, paid off and a converted try put them 19-12 ahead with just over two minutes to go. Norton was sent off with just 28 seconds left on the clock and while South Africa did manage to score, they failed to convert the try.
It was South Africa’s first loss in a final on home soil for four years. While the result was disappointing, England deserve bucketloads of credit for how well they played. At times, they looked absolutely shattered, but somehow found the gas to see it through.
Despite the result, the Blitzboks look like a far more complete package this season. The best thing about this team is that every single player seems to know exactly what his role is and, for most, that role is incredibly versatile. The team functions seamlessly even when their go-to man is being bogged down.
Unlike in the Rio Olympics earlier this year, where Seabelo Senatla’s absence in the semi-finals was clearly felt, the Blitzboks can now drive along in the same gear even when Senatla is a marked man, or worse, absent.
Never was this more evident than in the group stages of this weekend’s tournament when both the USA and Australia made a nuisance of themselves and quite obviously decided to target the South African flier. Yet, it hardly mattered to the Blitzboks who beat the USA 28-19 and the Aussies 29-7. It wasn’t quite the same in the final, but it simply means an opportunity for another player to step up.
Notable, too, is how much the defence has improved. Not that it was bad last season, but a few players just went missing every once in a while. This season, their opposition is constantly running into brick walls. Proof, as if their XVs cousins needed it, that you can have a solid defensive play without simply rummaging your way through. Of course, comparing the two formats is a bit like comparing apples with oranges, but every single part of the Blitzboks’ game plan is based on skills.
In the semi-final against New Zealand on Sunday, without Senatla and after losing former captain Kyle Brown, the Blitzboks still managed to find the impetus to win 14-7, ticking yet another “we’ve got the depth” box.
From Werner Kok being an absolute monster, with defenders bouncing off him like jelly, Chris Dry being a defensive machine and Rosco Specman stepping into Senatla’s speed merchant boots, this team has got every skill waxed.
The best display of Specman’s jet shoes came during the semi-final when, from a set-piece, he choreographed a try that saw him accelerate across 80m, side-stepping defenders in the same way you’d side-step a Ferrari. Try as he might, he couldn’t replicate much of that in the final, but this team has all the makings of becoming one of the best ever Blitzboks sides. This loss will only make them stronger and more determined. And they’ll repeat that “come get us” message every weekend in this tournament. DM
Photo: Branco du Preez of South Africa scores a try during day 2 of the 2016/17 HSBC Cape Town Sevens rugby match between South Africa and New Zealand at Cape Town Stadium, Cape Town on 11 December 2016 ©Chris Ricco/BackpagePix
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