RUGBY

Bigger picture for Blitzboks as season starts in Dubai

By Craig Ray 5 December 2019

Daily Maverick Archive Photo: Seabelo Senatla of South Africa.

The opening leg of the 2019/2020 HSBC World Sevens Series in Dubai, which starts in the Emirate on Friday, is the first in a six-month, 10-tournament search for the perfect 13-man Blitzboks squad for the Olympic Games in Tokyo next year.

Coach Neil Powell is as meticulous as his Springbok fifteens colleague Rassie Erasmus, and everything the South Africa Sevens team do during the World Series campaign, will be geared towards Olympic success.

Winning the World Series in 2020 is far from the main prize. It’s a step along the way to Olympic glory and completing unfinished business from Rio 2016 when the Blitzboks took home a bronze medal.

But to reach their main goal the Blitzboks have planned carefully and will treat each of the 10 World Series tournaments as a building block towards Tokyo 2020. It’s not that they aren’t trying to win the World Series, it’s just that each tournament will have specific targets that are greater than simply winning the final on a Sunday.

Because of the depth of talent in the Blitzbok setup, Powell has to juggle his resources and give every player a chance to make a claim for one of those Olympic places. That is his main priority.

Due to their careful planning the Blitzboks have developed massive depth, meaning some excellent sevens players will miss Tokyo 2020 next year.

The well-oiled sevens programme conceptualised and developed by Powell and Marius Schoeman nine years ago, is globally the best of its kind. Schoeman, who is also in Dubai as the secondary “Academy” team coach, is head of recruitment while former Blitzbok captain Paul Delport is one of his main lieutenants.

This production line has produced two World Series titles, a Commonwealth Games gold medal and an Olympic bronze in the past seven years. All that’s missing is a World Cup and an Olympic gold.

In 2010 Neil and I were both interested in the future of sevens and we asked each other, what was the thing that we needed most to become a sevens power? The answer was simply ‘consistency’,” Schoeman told me in an interview last year.

And to achieve that we needed an academy, which would give us a conveyor belt of players. That was where the idea began and we then spent eight months planning it.

We took information from a wide range of people, from administrators to coaches such as Jake White and put together a proposal, which SA Rugby accepted.

I was given a small budget and was able to sign six players at the end of 2011 – among them were Kwagga Smith, Cheslin Kolbe, Justin Geduld and Werner Kok. Not one of them made SA Schools. I went and recruited them from Craven Week.”

From a modest budget the Academy now contracts 26 players on a full-time basis and keeps producing fine players.

Neil and I already have a clear vision of what the 2020 Olympic squad will look like and what our goals are for the next four years,” Schoeman said. “We are clear about the type of players we will recruit in the next few years.

A huge factor in professional rugby of any level is player conditioning. We are able to get that spot on because we have total control over our contracted players. Other national teams simply don’t have that luxury.”

All-time leading try scorer Seabelo Senatla is one of three players only involved in the first two tournaments of the 2019/2020 campaign before returning to Super Rugby duty. Senatla, Dylan Sage and Ruhan Nel will all feature for the Blitzboks in Dubai and Cape Town.

We have the Olympics as an end goal, but everyone realises the here and now aspect of Dubai,” Powell said. “The focus is here, and we are looking for the effort this weekend.

 Referring to Sage, Senatla, Nel and Rosko Specman (who is in the Academy team), Powell said: “Those guys have worked hard with us in the last couple of weeks to fit back into our systems. They have individual excellence, but it will be how they fit into the overall team structure that will determine their successful return or not.

Our objectives for the weekend are quite simple – we want to build a good foundation, not only for next weekend, but for the remainder of the season. We want to do well and get the pointers on those things we are doing right.”

After two months of pre-season in the increasingly sweltering surroundings of their high performance centre in Stellenbosch, the team are well acclimatised for the heat of Dubai and prepared for the season to come.

It’s only when the tournament starts that Powell will know if all his planning and preparation been accurate.

We played in a warm-up tournament so a lot of things we wanted to do have happened – but the real test remains here in Dubai when the tournament and series start,” said Powell.

South Africa have won the Dubai title six times before and for Powell a good start has always indicated what the season has in store for the Blitzboks. 

The pre-season normally manifests itself here and in Cape Town next weekend, but I think we have laid a good foundation for the opening two weeks,” he explained.

There are a couple of challenges though. We needed to get through the 10-hour flight and its effects, and then a slight mindset change as the tournament is now starting a day earlier and will be played over three days and not the usual two.”

Powell will also have a keen interest on the performances of the SA Rugby Sevens Academy team, who starts their campaign against the Royal Jesters in the International Invitational tournament on Thursday.

Several Blitzboks stalwarts will be in action and Powell will also be eager to see the progress made by new recruit Hacjivah Dayimani, as well as Werner Kok, who returned from the French Top 14 recently.

The Blitzboks face Kenya at 5.54pm (SA time) in Pool D. They face Spain and England in their remaining pool fixtures on Friday. The Academy side take on the Royal Jesters at 11.20pm (SA time) and French Military at 1.20pm on Thursday. DM

The Blitzbok squad for Dubai:

1. Chris Dry (68 tournaments, 342 matches; 465 points, 93 tries)

2. Ryan Oosthuizen (17 tournaments,83 matches; 85 points, 17 tries)

3. Dylan Sage (24 tournaments, 134 matches; 155 points, 31 tries)

4. Zain Davids (18 tournaments, 88 matches; 60 points, 12 tries)

5. JC Pretorius (five tournaments, 27 matches; 55 points; 11 tries)

6. Siviwe Soyizwapi (captain; 28 tournaments, 145 matches; 445 points, 89 tries)

7. Selvyn Davids (14 tournaments, 69 matches; 300 points; 31 tries, 71 conversions, 1 penalty)

8. Rosko Specman (28 tournaments, 150 matches; 380 points; 70 tries, 15 conversions)

9. Justin Geduld (46 tournaments, 239 matches; 951 points;104 tries, 214 conversions, 1 penalty)

10. Kurt-Lee Arendse (four tournaments, 16 matches; 45 points, nine tries)

11. Seabelo Senatla (39 tournaments, 203 matches; 1120 points, 224 tries)

12. Ruhan Nel (28 tournaments, 147 matches; 247 points; 49 tries, 1 conversion)

13. Christi Grobbelaar (on debut)

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