Blitzboks face hostile Hamilton reception in cutthroat new sevens format

Seabelo Senatla Blitzbokke medal winners during day 3 of the 2019 HSBC Cape Town Sevens at Cape Town Stadium on December 15, 2019 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo by Ziyaad Douglas/Gallo Images)
By Craig Ray
23 Jan 2020 0

The third leg of the HSBC World Sevens Series in Hamilton this weekend is under a cloud of controversy after World Rugby changed the schedule by eliminating the men’s quarterfinals.

After 20 years of the same format, World Rugby have juggled scheduling to accommodate the increase in women’s events on the circuit.

The trade-off is either increasing the duration of the tournament from two to three days when there are both men’s and women’s events, or cutting out matches.

In round two at the Cape Town Sevens in December 2019, a women’s tournament was held for the first time in the Mother City. As a result, the tournament was held over three days – from Friday to Sunday. That meant that the men’s event was not curbed and it included four quarterfinals.

In rounds three and four – in Hamilton and Sydney over the next two weekends – the men’s event will see the winners of each of the four Pools advance straight to a semi-final. The quarterfinals, which have traditionally included the top two teams from each Pool, have been scrapped.

 While the need to grow the women’s game is a vital part of rugby’s future, it shouldn’t come at the cost of the men’s game.

The beauty of a quarterfinal is that it allows a team that might have had an off-day in the Pool stages to still reach the play-offs and retain a chance to win the title.

From a fan and TV perspective, the quarterfinals also add to the drama of the event as it regularly throws up contests between some of the leading title contenders.

 Although there have been reports of unhappiness by some of the leading sevens nations about the change, the format will go ahead as scheduled for the next two tournaments.

 World Rugby have claimed their changes are in the interests of “player welfare”.

 “Hamilton and Sydney tendered to be included in the Series on the basis of hosting two-day combined events and the match schedule has been developed with player welfare front of mind and following consultation with participating unions, host unions and International Rugby Players,” World Rugby said in a statement.

“Taking into consideration that a two-day event was the preference for both Hamilton and Sydney host unions, World Rugby made the decision to remove the quarter-finals for both men and women.

 “This is to ensure that the length of tournament days does not exceed what is acceptable from a player welfare and operational delivery perspective, as well as ensuring parity across both men’s and women’s competitions in terms of the number of games played.”

 It will add to the drama on the men’s side of the draw because the quality of sevens depth has increased dramatically over the last five years since the sport was added to the Olympic Games roster.

 Besides traditional sevens powerhouses such as Fiji, New Zealand and South Africa, the US, England, Australia, Samoa, Kenya and Argentina are capable of beating any side. Spain has also improved immeasurably and even Japan has taken its sevens programme to new levels.

 With only the top team qualifying from each Pool, the early matches suddenly have much greater stakes riding on them. The margin for error has been trimmed back.

 South Africa, who are currently joint top of the World Series standings on 41 points with New Zealand, face Japan, England and Kenya in Pool play on day one. 

The Blitzboks can expect a hostile reception from the Hamilton crowd, who understand that so far, South Africa is New Zealand’s closest rival this season.

 The hostility also stems from years of intense rivalry at this level, as well as the longer version of the game between the two nations. New Zealand hasn’t won the World Series for five years after dominating the competition by winning 12 of the first 15 World Series’ between 1999 and 2014. 

Although winning the World Series is important, it is secondary in 2020 to Olympic Games success for the Blitzboks and for most other contenders as well. 

Blitzbok coach Neil Powell has stuck to his plan to change his squad after the first two legs in Dubai and Cape Town to ensure all his players are given an opportunity to force their way into the final group for Tokyo 2020 later this year.

“No player was going to play in all 10 tournaments and then the Olympics – that is just too much rugby – so the rotation of players was always on the cards,” said Powell.

“We had some guys coming in for the opening leg and then returning to fifteens (Seabelo Senatla, Dylan Sage and Rosko Specman), we have some guys out injured and we have some guys playing in their first tournament of the series, but it’s all according to plan.

“We have pretty much the squad we expected to have here, bar Siviwe (Soyizwapi) and Kurt-Lee (Arendse), who picked up injuries back home, but it only means they get their break a bit earlier.

“We prepared well and the ‘new’ players, such as Stedman Gans, Cecil Afrika, Branco du Preez, Muller du Plessis and Werner Kok are raring to go. They have solid experience as well and that will benefit the squad on this trip.”

Afrika is South Africa’s all-time leading points’-scorer in this format (1440 points) while Branco du Preez and Werner Kok both come with deep wells of experience.

Afrika had an injury-plagued campaign in 2018/19 and missed nine tournaments last season as the Blitzboks’ two-year reign as series champions ended with a fourth-place finish.

Despite being fit for the first two legs of the 2019/2020 series. Afrika, Kok and Du Preez have all had to be patient as Powell relegated them to the Academy team for the first two tournaments of the year.

 The fact that the Blitzboks could exclude players of Afrika and Kok’s stature for the first two rounds and still win in Dubai and finish as runners-up in Cape Town, underlines the depth and success of the South African sevens programme.

Afrika, Kok and Du Preez were included in the SA Academy team that played in separate tournaments in Kenya and Dubai, which allowed them to stay match sharp.

 “The warm-up tournaments I played in Kenya and Dubai certainly got the juices flowing and I am very keen to get going again,” Afrika said. We need to follow up the good work done by the squad that played in Dubai and Cape Town and if we do what was practised, planned and expected, we will be competitive.”

For 20-year-old squad members Angelo Davids and Muller du Plessis, the idea of playing rugby in New Zealand – the spiritual home of rugby – is an added inspiration this weekend.

Davids is on his first visit to New Zealand and is excited, rather than daunted by the prospect of what he knows will be a hostile reception from the home crowd.

“It is very exciting to be here in New Zealand; it is a country I have always wanted to visit and now I am here representing the Blitzboks and South Africa on the rugby field. I can’t wait,” said Davids, who also represented the Junior Springboks in Argentina in the World Rugby Under-20 Championship last year.

 Stedman Gans is captaining the Blitzboks for the first time and downplayed the controversy surrounding the scrapping of quarterfinals.

“We are lucky in that we already have a system in place that does not look too far ahead – we believe in the first game on the first day and adjust from there,” said Gans. 

“It means we only focus on that first match, as that needs to lay the foundation for the remainder of the tournament. We are also not results driven, but rather believe that if we execute well and stay within our structures the result will look after itself. That will ease the pressure, no doubt.” DM