How a full-time, professional set-up has led to an improved Springbok Women’s Sevens side
The Springbok Women’s Sevens side had one week’s preparation before last year’s Cape Town Sevens tournament. This time around, they have had a full pre-season and are ready to tackle this weekend head-on.
Last weekend, the Springbok Women’s Sevens side were a late Sarah Hirini try away from upsetting reigning champions New Zealand in their opening match of the Dubai SVNS series.
The Bok Women’s Sevens lost the match 19-14 before losing 12-17 to Fiji and 17-5 to Great Britain in their pool matches on Saturday.
At first glance, three losses from three matches might seem a poor return, but South Africa were a few bounces of the ball away from winning all three of those matches. It speaks to the meteoric improvement in the side over the last year.
For context, at the Commonwealth Games last year, the Springbok Women’s Sevens lost 41-0 to Fiji and 36-0 to England. This time around, there were no blowout results.
The impressive fitness, fine-tuned skill level and developed conditioning of the SA Women’s Sevens side is largely down to the side being contracted full-time to a Sevens programme for the first time. This means head coach Renfred Dazel has exponentially more time to work with the players.
“If you look at a year back, there was no full-time programme. Girls came in and only prepared one or two weeks for a tournament,” Dazel told Daily Maverick.
“But now, thanks to Saru [South African Rugby Union], we have the opportunity to run a full-time system and plan.
“If you coach people and work with them every day, they’re going to improve.
“I’m really happy with the girls’ performance in the past tournament. They actually stood up against the No 1 side in the world, and then against Fiji, and also showed great character against Great Britain.
Saru’s decision to professionalise the Springbok Women’s Sevens team came after they clinched back-to-back Sevens Challenger Series trophies in Stellenbosch in April this year.
Those wins meant the side qualified for the SVNS World Series as a core side for the first time since 2014/15.
Only co-captains Mathrin Simmers and Zintle Mpupha have previous experience playing in the World Series.
Despite their impressive showings on day one in Dubai, South Africa finished 10th overall after winning their ninth-placed semifinal 17-0 over Spain before losing the final 12-5 to Japan.
There is a marked improvement in the Bok Women’s Sevens team, but they’re still a way off their season goals.
“For us, this whole season is going to be about how competitive we can be as a system and to work towards the bigger goal, which is to finish in the top eight to avoid playing in the [promotion/relegation],” Dazel said.
The bottom four of the 12 core teams on the circuit after seven tournaments will play the top four Challenger sides at the “Grand final” in Madrid in the last weekend of May next year.
“What might be challenging for us throughout the season is injuries and how we cope with them and test the depth of the system,” Dazel added.
A factor that will aid the Women’s side’s depth is that an “A” side is established and gaining experience.
The team travelled to Dubai last weekend and played in the International Invitational tournament, as the SA Rugby Sevens Academy – the men’s “A” team – usually do.
“[It was the] first time in women’s Sevens rugby that we could send an invitational side to play in a tournament. I think that helps us,” Dazel said.
The nimble-footed side started their season brightly, winning the Rugby Africa Sevens tournament in Tunisia last month. The regional tournament win means the side has qualified for next year’s Olympic Games in Paris.
But playing in the Rugby Africa Sevens tournament meant that Dazel could not have the ideal pre-season he was hoping for.
“We didn’t have the pre-season that we wanted to prepare for a long sevens circuit,” Dazel said.
“We had a four-week block before this which seems to be fine if you look at the conditioning and where [the players] are.
“You want to put more structures and more things in place with the pre-season so that the moment you get to your first tournament, you go out with all guns blazing.
“If there’s something I could change, it would be the pre-season, but I’m happy with preparation overall.”
This year’s pre-season is a major upgrade from last season where Dazel had only one week to prepare his side for the Dubai and Cape Town Sevens tournaments — where they played as an invitational side.
After an encouraging performance in Dubai last weekend, there is a greater expectation of performance on the Springbok Women’s Sevens at home in Cape Town this weekend.
“Cape Town is a different beast,” Dazel said.
“When you play in front of your home crowd, people can get carried away … but at least, between myself and Cecil [Afrika], we’ve been on the circuit before so we can give the girls tips on how they can manage.”
Playmaker Libbie Janse van Rensburg (groin) and Zintle Mpupha (concussion) have been ruled out of this weekend’s action after picking up knocks on day two in Dubai.
Their replacements will be named on Thursday.
On the Blitzboks side, prop Christie Grobbelaar sustained an ankle injury and has been preliminarily replaced by Tiaan Pretorius and Tristan Lleyds in the squad.
The current 14-player squad will be trimmed to 13 on Thursday.
“It is really unfortunate for Christie, as he was in very good form in Dubai and every player in the team wants to play in their home tournament,” said head coach Sandile Ngcobo.
“As always in rugby, an injury affords another player an opportunity, and it could be Tiaan or Tristan. Tiaan is a straight swap for Christie as a forward, but we added Tristan as he gives us a different option, should we decide to tweak the team for this weekend.” DM