In sevens heaven: Blitzboks poised to reap huge rewards of 10-year plan
SA Rugby’s sevens team have won 34 consecutive matches and six tournaments on the bounce. As things stand, the Blitzboks are well placed to claim their fourth World Rugby Sevens Series title in six years.
The Blitzboks have come to embody everything that is good about South African sport. The squad is talented, committed, driven and representative of a diverse nation. The personnel may change from year to year, but a culture built on hard work and a never-say-die mentality remains the same.
They’re in a strong position to win the 2021/22 World Sevens Series, the subsequent Commonwealth Games and the Sevens World Cup at home in September 2022. They would not be in such a position if not for a series of plans and structures that were implemented nearly 10 years ago.
“When we started this programme in 2013, it was always our intention to take the team to No 1 to keep them there, and to try [to] dominate world sevens,” Blitzboks head coach Neil Powell tells DM168.
“We’re not there yet, but if we keep pushing we will give ourselves a chance of realising all of those goals.”
Kolbe et al were first recruits
Former Blitzboks captain Marius Schoeman – who is now SA Rugby’s sevens high-performance manager – started the programme after retiring from the game in 2010.
Together with Powell, who was nearing the end of his own playing career at that stage, Schoeman presented the idea to SA Rugby. The rest is history.
Schoeman attended major schools tournaments and festivals, as well as club competitions such as the Varsity Cup, scouting for potential players.
“I ranked players according to their positions. I considered who could slot into a sevens system. I eventually wrote a scouting manual that went hand in hand with Neil’s game plan,” he tells DM168.
Back then, Schoeman had the resources to contract only six players – players who had been overlooked by the unions for their respective fifteens programmes. Fast forward to the present, and four of those “discards” are now superstars.
Cheslin Kolbe won a bronze medal with the Blitzboks at the 2016 Olympic Games, before going on to win a Rugby Championship, a World Cup and a series against the British & Irish Lions with the Springboks. He also won several major titles with French club Toulouse.
Kwagga Smith was a sevens star before he represented the Lions in three Super Rugby finals, and has since become a regular for a Bok team that has won a World Cup and defeated the British & Irish Lions.
Werner Kok was one of the top performers on the sevens circuit before switching to the longer format, and the equally decorated Justin Geduld continues to set the standard for the Blitzboks today.
“We identify players at under-16 level and then track their progress through to the Under-18 Craven Week,” Powell says of the scouting process, which has been refined over the years.
“When players leave school, you face a fight with the unions, who are looking to sign players for fifteens.
“Back in 2013, when we started this programme, we had to settle for whoever the unions didn’t pick up, usually the second-, third- and even fourth-choice players.
“It sounds crazy now, given all they have achieved, but Kwagga, Cheslin and Justin were told by the unions that they were too small for fifteens. Werner wasn’t picked up either. That was good news for us, because we gained full access to these players. They certainly have made a massive impact in the sevens game.”
Lessons from New Zealand
When Schoeman and Powell first implemented this programme, New Zealand was at the top of the world rankings in both codes.
The New Zealand sevens side won 12 titles between 1999 and 2014. Schoeman and Powell took note of what was working for the Kiwis, and considered how similar structures would benefit the Blitzboks in the short- and long-term.
Since then, the title spoils have been fairly even – with the Blitzboks winning three, Fiji three and New Zealand one.
“New Zealand were the trendsetters,” says Powell. “They were immensely successful, winning 47 games in a row at one stage and completely dominating the Sevens Series.
“When they didn’t win individual tournaments, their system allowed them to be consistent enough to progress as far as the semis. They were always there or thereabouts,” he says.
“Consistency is often a problem in South African sport. We see it across other codes like rugby fifteens and cricket. The team enjoys some success, and then struggles in the period that follows.
“I’m not sure if that is down to arrogance or complacency. It seems like we get ahead of ourselves. The sevens team is no different, as we’ve also been guilty of this at times over the past decade. It’s something we are constantly trying to improve.”
Changing the culture
It’s taken a long time to change the team culture – and the process is far from complete.
“It takes about 10 to 15 years to build a culture like this,” says Schoeman. “Neil and myself were in the system as players in the 2000s. We were well aware of the gaps and areas that required improvement. One of those areas was the team culture.
“We addressed that when the programme started, and spoke to then head coach Paul Treu about bringing it through.
“We were on tour in Australia the one year, and we sat down for about six hours talking about the way forward. From there, we added to it and refined it.
“Culture determines who gets signed to our academy and, indeed, who goes on to play for the Blitzboks. Discipline, respect, humility, work ethic – those are the pillars of our system. If I find a talented player [who] doesn’t share those values, I won’t bring him into the system.”
Powell elaborates: “It’s not just about whether they can fit into the culture, but whether they can add to it and take the team forward. We consider that when scouting players at school tournaments, and when looking at big-name players who want to move across from fifteens.”
There are other tactical and technical reasons a player needs to fit into the Blitzboks culture.
“Our culture and attitude feeds into how we want to play the game. That’s why there’s such a big focus on conditioning,” Schoeman explains.
“You can’t just come across from fifteens and expect to succeed at sevens right away,” he says, to highlight the difference between the codes. “Most fifteens players would struggle to complete a week of training with us – and that’s just because the training is so different to what they are used to.”
Defence at heart of success
The Blitzboks are renowned for their defence. They may not boast the biggest players, and they may occasionally miss tackles, but, by and large, their system keeps opponents honest.
“We have a saying in our team: ‘The opposition can beat the individual but not the system.’ Your system accounts for the one-on-one missed tackle,” says Powell. “It also becomes a mindset when you strive to keep the opposition try-less. If they don’t score and you don’t score, you have a draw at the very least. Defence controls the outcome.
“The decision-making, especially around the ruck, is so important. We prefer to compete and win the turnover in order to run at an unstructured opposition defence. X-factor players such as Selwyn Davids and Ronald Brown are so good in those situations.”
Schoeman and Powell stress, though, that this team is essentially more than the sum of its parts.
“The whole system is built around the idea of a collective,” Schoeman says. “After every leg of the Sevens Series, they rank individual players according to their stats during the tournament. I don’t think we had many players on those lists in Seville, but our team won the competition.
“That says everything for me. Every player understands how he fits into the game plan, and what he has to do for the team to get the result.”
The Blitzboks have overcome a number of injury and Covid-19 obstacles over the past few months.
Most recently, they managed to win back-to-back tournaments in Spain despite the absence of several frontline players.
Powell highlights the fact that some of the individuals who starred in Malaga and Seville have played five tournaments or fewer. They certainly didn’t look out of place on the big stage – and that is a credit to a South African sevens system aimed at preparing young players to make the step up to the international circuit.
“We want to make that transition to the big time much easier,” says Schoeman. “We get the academy players into as many academy tournaments as possible, so that they get to experience what it’s like in a team environment and to start learning our culture.”
Singapore next on hit list
Recent tournaments have precluded major teams such as New Zealand and Fiji because of heavy travel restrictions.
Some critics have argued that the Blitzboks’ recent winning streak must be viewed in perspective, given the enforced absence of these teams.
New Zealand and Fiji have won 16 Sevens Series titles between them.
“We’re not naive; we know that the Sevens Series would be different if New Zealand and Fiji were involved,” says Schoeman.
“I’m not saying that we wouldn’t have won those tournaments. I’m saying that the playoffs can take on a different dynamic when teams of that quality are there.”
Although there is much to celebrate, the brains trust is already looking forward to the next challenge.
Schoeman concedes that it would be easy for the players to get ahead of themselves after winning six titles on the trot.
“If a player strays, we pull him aside to remind him what this team stands for. We want to be successful, but we also want to be humble and deserving of respect.
“To be fair, the players understand that and are mature enough to accept positive criticism when they receive it.
“We call the process ‘Getting back to zero’. We will start again, and build towards the next tournament. Nothing will change in terms of our goals.” DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Woolworths, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.
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