Sport

SEVENS RUGBY

Injury-hit Blitzboks look to sidestep Hong Kong hoodoo

Injury-hit Blitzboks look to sidestep Hong Kong hoodoo
Head coach Sandile Ngcobo with the Blitzboks. (Photo: Grant Pitcher / Gallo Images)

The Springbok Sevens have another opportunity to close in on Olympic qualification in Hong Kong this weekend after a run of dismal performances.

The Blitzboks are in Hong Kong this weekend desperate to end their remarkable winless run in the city.

After a nightmarish two weeks in North America at the end of February and start of March, the Blitzboks are languishing in seventh place on the Sevens series standings — falling from second.

The Springboks Sevens team need a strong showing in Hong Kong this weekend to resurrect their chances of qualification for the Paris 2024 Olympics – only the top four on the standings qualify automatically.

But they will be without a number of stalwarts in Hong Kong, including Selvyn Davids, Dewald Human, Ronald Brown and Justin Geduld, who are all injured.

Head coach Sandile Ngcobo has called up the uncapped trio of Ethan James, Sebastiaan Jobb and Donovan Don as reinforcements for the injury-hit side.

“The new players have slotted in extremely well – they are fast learners and have brought some excitement to the squad. Yes, they will make some mistakes, but we will benefit from their energy,” said the head coach.

Former Springbok wing Travis Ismaiel will also run out for the Blitzboks this weekend, having made his debut at the Los Angeles leg – at the end of February – where the Blitzboks were knocked out in the quarterfinals.

A week later in Vancouver, Canada, the side failed to exit their group – their worst showing of a roller coaster season so far.

The challenge of recapturing the form that saw them win the second leg of the World Series in Dubai at the end of 2022, won’t be easy in Hong Kong, where they have never won.

To make the challenge even more daunting, the Blitzboks have been placed in the same group as the second-most-successful team in Hong Kong – New Zealand – who are 11-time champions.

Ireland and Kenya are the other two teams in Pool D. All three of South Africa’s opening-day opponents have beaten them at some point in the seven-tournament journey of the World Series thus far.

“This is what the World Series is all about – you get to play the best of the best and nothing is guaranteed,” said Ngcobo on the eve of the tournament from Hong Kong.

Philip Snyman during Blitzbok training at Hamilton RFC in Cape Town on 6 December 2022. (Photo: Ashley Vlotman / Gallo Images)

“There is no such thing as small or big teams anymore and we will prepare for the weekend accordingly. This is a challenge we need as a group, and the players know they have to step up and prepare for battle, and to ensure we play to the best of our ability in every single game.”

Paris Olympics

South Africans are in seventh position on the World Series standings with 89 points. Fourth place is currently occupied by Fiji and Australia with 94 points. France are in third with 95, which means positions three to seven are separated by only six points.

New Zealand (120 points) and Argentina (108 points) – the only two nations to have won more than one leg on the World Series – are first and second.

There are only three legs left after Hong Kong – Singapore, Toulouse and London – which makes climbing the standings to automatic Olympic qualification as soon as possible vitally important for South Africa.

“Our first aim this weekend will be to make the quarterfinals,” assistant coach Philip Snyman said.

“We have a very difficult pool, but we have been working very hard in the last few weeks, also to bring the enjoyment back to our squad.

Philip Snyman and Sandile Ngcobo at a Blitzbok training session at Beetham Park in Hamilton, New Zealand, on 16 January 2023. (Photo: David van der Sandt / Gallo Images)

“If we can do that, it will give our confidence a big boost and hopefully all will fall into place after that. I believe that if we play with intensity and momentum, and in our opponents’ faces on defence, we will have a good weekend and we can make the quarterfinals.”

South Africa’s first match in Hong Kong is against eighth-placed Ireland on Friday morning.

The last time they met, in Los Angeles, the men in emerald green beat the Blitzboks by 14-5 in their pool match.

Revenge, however, won’t be the primary focus for South Africa, they simply want to start well in Hong Kong.

“The only thing on our minds right now is the first game on the first day of the tournament, and that is Ireland,” said Ngcobo. 

“After that match we’ll take it from there. Our goal is to improve our position on the World Series standings, so we can go into the last leg of the season, in Toulouse and London, in the top four.” DM

Blitzboks’ pool fixtures (South African times):

Friday, 31 March

SA v Ireland at 9.04am

Saturday, 1 April:

SA v New Zealand at 5.04am

SA v Kenya at 9.25am

Springbok Sevens squad:

Ryan Oosthuizen, Impi Visser, Zain Davids, Siviwe Soyizwapi (captain), Mfundo Ndhlovu, Christie Grobbelaar, Shaun Williams, Travis Ismaiel, Ricardo Duarttee, Tiaan Pretorius, Ethan James, Sebastiaan Jobb, Donovan Don.

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