Blitzboks’ battle with New Zealand left unresolved as 2019/20 World Sevens Series cancelled

Blitzboks’ battle with New Zealand left unresolved as 2019/20 World Sevens Series cancelled
Andrew Knewstubb of New Zealand gets his pass away against South Africa in the final on day 3 of the 2019 HSBC Cape Town Sevens at Cape Town Stadium on 15 December 2019 © Ryan Wilkisky/BackpagePix

New Zealand rugby rarely needs any favours but the Covid-19 pandemic has ensured that both the women’s and men’s Kiwi teams have been declared 2019/20 HSBC World Sevens Series champions.

World Rugby was forced to accept defeat on Tuesday and cancel the remaining legs of the World Series due to restrictions caused by the pandemic. The global suspension of sport and the difficulty of air travel, coupled with the complexities of quarantine periods, meant it was logistically impossible to complete the season.

Rugby, as a major contact sport, is still suspended in almost every country. Ironically, New Zealand is the only country where the sport is currently being played, as their lockdown restrictions have eased after only a handful of new coronavirus cases in the past six weeks were reported.

There were four legs of the men’s draw to play and three in the women’s draw. In the latter category, NZ enjoyed a 16 point lead, having won four of the five completed tournaments. But on the men’s side, the battle between New Zealand and South Africa was still well poised.

For the Blitzboks, it was a particularly big blow as they were 11 points adrift of New Zealand and still had a realistic shot at winning their third title in four years.

Inconsistency hurt South Africa in the early part of the season, particularly in the third leg in Hamilton, where the Blitzboks endured their worst tournament finish – 10th – in seven years. To make matters worse, New Zealand won their home tournament, which put 15 log points between the teams in one blow after they went into the tournament as joint leaders with 41 log points.

Following Hamilton, South Africa clawed back 11 of those points. They won in Los Angeles a week after they were runners-up in Sydney. New Zealand faltered slightly in Sydney, coming fifth and finishing third in LA.

In the final tournament before lockdown, in Vancouver, New Zealand bounced back with their third title of the season, while the Blitzboks came fourth, which opened the lead to double figures again. Given the seesaw battle between the two old rivals, the next four tournaments could have been exceptional.

New Zealand were on 115 points, closely followed by the Blitzboks on 104. Fiji (83), Australia (81) and England (77) finished third, fourth and fifth respectively.

Ever gracious, a disappointed Blitzbok coach Neil Powell congratulated All Blacks Sevens coach Clark Laidlaw and his squad for winning the title after consistently performing well during the series.

“New Zealand won three of the six tournaments and had two more podium finishes, which shows their amazing level of consistency during the season,” said Powell.

“After these performances, I think they deserved the title. We had tournament victories in Dubai and Los Angeles and made the finals in Cape Town and Sydney, but our below par performances in Hamilton and Vancouver cost us.”

Powell said the news of the cancellation of the London, Paris, Singapore and Hong Kong tournaments was disappointing but understandable.

“There was very good communication from World Rugby with the national coaches since the pandemic started, so we all knew that it was going to be a stretch to complete the season, if at all, and we know their decision was taken with the best interest at heart for all involved,” said Powell.

“We played some good rugby at times and I will consider the season as a success. Much of the World Series planning and performances were with the Olympic Games in mind, so I think we kept on track with what we planned in that regard and I would like to thank my management and the squad for the effort they delivered.”

The Olympics have been rescheduled for 2021. That gives all teams more time to prepare. The lack of tournaments, and with no guarantee of the 2020-21 season starting in December as scheduled, leaves fringe players few opportunities to force their way into selection contention.

It’s also a burden on older players who might have had one realistic tilt at representing the Blitzboks at the Olympics. All-time Blitzboks leading points-scorer Cecil Afrika has become a victim of the turmoil. Afrika, who was on an extended one-year contract, was forced to retire after Powell was unable to guarantee the player another contract extension.

World Rugby’s said the decision to cancel the remainder of the World Series “followed detailed and constructive dialogue with the host and participating unions, and has been taken with the health and wellbeing of the rugby community and the wider public as top priority, and in line with the relevant national government and public health authority advice”.

World Rugby chairman Sir Bill Beaumont said: “While it is extremely disappointing for players, fans, organisers and everyone involved to have to cancel these events due to the global Covid-19 pandemic, the health and wellbeing of the rugby community and wider society remains the number one priority.

“These difficult decisions have been taken following detailed consultation with our union partners and in line with advice from the various government and public health agencies around the world, given the global nature of the World Rugby Sevens Series.

“Rugby sevens is a key driver of global growth for our sport, particularly in emerging nations, and it firmly remains a top priority for our organisation. As we begin to see light at the end of the tunnel, 2021 has the potential to be a very exciting year for rugby sevens with the Tokyo Olympic Games on the horizon.”

International Rugby Players’ head of legal and player welfare, David Quinlan, said: “Players are naturally disappointed at today’s announcement… However, given the circumstances of this pandemic, it’s the right decision for all concerned. We will continue to work with World Rugby on next season’s schedule so that players can focus on getting back on the pitch and preparing for an Olympic Games in 2021.” DM


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