Powell’s era of brilliance is almost over, but the Blitzboks are far from finished
The Blitzboks’ clinical 31-7 destruction of Fiji in the gold-medal match at the Commonwealth Games was not just about winning, but was also a statement of intent.
South Africa (they’re not officially called the Blitzboks at the Commonwealth Games), swamped the favoured Fijians in the Commonwealth Games final to win gold and repeat the feat they achieved in Glasgow in 2014.
Three first-half tries, shuddering defence and clinically brutal breakdown work stunned the islanders.
Two more tries followed after the break, while Fiji scored a lone consolation try. Those are the broad brushstrokes of the match.
But the bigger picture was more revealing, because this was the Blitzboks back to their best. And while the Commonwealth Games gold medal is a massive achievement in isolation, in the context of a loaded 2022 programme, it forms the first of a three-part assault on sevens supremacy.
Sevens tournaments are always a journey in ups and downs. During six games spread over two or three days, there will be troughs and peaks for all sides. The key is to limit the depth and duration of the troughs and expand the peaks.
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Neil Powell’s team clinically dispatched their group-phase opponents (Malaysia 46-0, Tonga 36-5 and Scotland 34-0). In the quarters, they thumped Canada 33-0 – and then came one of those games with a small trough.
Australia loomed. The team that has chased South Africa relentlessly throughout the current 2021/22 World Series were always going to be tricky opponents. The Aussies won the previous meeting between the sides before Birmingham by 21-17 – in the London leg of the World Series.
Australia are also second on the World Series standings and the only team that can stop South Africa winning the title. The Blitzboks have 124 log points to Australia’s 122.
But that tournament – and the one remaining battle in Los Angeles later this month – was put aside, with a place in the Commonwealth Games gold medal match on the line.
Australia scored first in the semi-final and added another try before halftime. Australia broke too many soft tackles and only the Blitzboks’ imagination and ruthlessness saw them go into the break level at 12-12.
It was a game that could have taken a bad turn, but the return of players such as Angelo Davids, who has missed the 2021/22 World Sevens Series to play fifteens, made a difference. Davids scored his third hattrick of the tournament against Australia as South Africa slammed the door on the Aussies with a 24-12 win to set up a final with Fiji.
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The islanders had never won the Commonwealth Games gold despite two Olympic sevens titles, and entered the showpiece match as favourites after taking down New Zealand in extra time in an epic thriller.
However, on the biggest stage, under the most pressure, Powell’s team produced their best performance of the tournament – and probably of the year too.
Defensively they knocked the Fijians backwards in contact, destroyed the islanders at the breakdown and outmanoeuvred them on attack. It was an exhibition in modern sevens tactical brilliance.
“I’m probably more relieved than anything else and really proud of the boys… they put in a massive effort – not only in the final against Fiji, but all six games over the weekend,” said Powell.
“It’s amazing to have won the gold medal again, like we did eight years ago in Glasgow, and especially after we finished fourth and didn’t win a medal at the previous Commonwealth Games in Australia… so there are a lot of emotions – the victory brought back memories of what happened in Glasgow in 2014.”
Powell has created an environment where the “system” is everything. He has innovated from turning restarts into an attacking weapon, to more use of kicking in a version of the game traditionally associated with running and passing.
Players know their roles and execute them magnificently. Sevens was once the domain of skilled individuals loosely playing in a team. South Africa has created a collective that is always greater than the sum of its parts because “the system” takes care of them.
Roles are clearly defined and there isn’t a team that understands their gameplan as intimately as South Africa. Fiji might, man-for-man, have better athletes, but they lost to a system honed in 40°C January Stellenbosch days and freezing, wet winter mornings.
Powell’s tenure is almost up. He will take on the director of rugby role at the Sharks later this year, which is a coup for the Durban franchise. If Powell is given the time and space to build a team at the Sharks, they will almost certainly be a success.
“The guys worked tirelessly on defence, sticking to our systems and putting in a massive effort, especially against the bigger opponents,” he said.
“After the World Series tournament in London, we had to reset and re-evaluated our goals for the rest of the season and the last three tournaments, the Commonwealth Games, the Los Angeles Sevens and finally the Rugby World Cup Sevens,” Powell said.
“The guys really worked hard in the build-up to this tournament, and I’m glad they got rewarded for it, showing once again that although hard work doesn’t necessarily guarantee success, it’s part of success.
“For our confidence, it was important for us to deliver a good performance here, especially after what happened in London, and to get some momentum and belief back. Hopefully the belief we got from this tournament will carry us to LA and then the RWC Sevens early in September.”
Building a legacy
It’s been an era of Blitzboks excellence under Powell, with three World Series titles (a fourth is possible in a few weeks) and two Commonwealth Games golds. The Sevens World Cup is in Cape Town in September, which means, as of today, Powell’s team has a chance to record an unprecedented treble in 2022.
“When we started this programme in 2013, it was always our intention to take the team to number one to keep them there, and to try [to] dominate world sevens,” Powell told Daily Maverick in February.
“We’re not there yet, but if we keep pushing we will give ourselves a chance of realising all of those goals.”
Cheslin Kolbe and Kwagga Smith, two names synonymous with the fifteens Boks, came out of the system which Powell and right-hand man Marius Schoeman developed.
Powell is also happy to admit his ideas come from learning from rivals. The first decade of the World Sevens Series was dominated by New Zealand, but in the past eight years they’ve won just two World Series titles.
“New Zealand were the trendsetters,” Powell told DM. “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.”
And improve they have. Winning the Commonwealth Games gold is as close to winning an Olympic gold as there can be. All the best rugby sevens-playing nations are part of the Commonwealth.
One down. Two to go. DM
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