Sport

SEVENS STRUGGLES

Stumbling Blitzboks still suffering from pandemic budget blow

Stumbling Blitzboks still suffering from pandemic budget blow
The Blitzboks take on Great Britain during the HSBC Vancouver Sevens at BC Place in Vancouver, Canada, on 23 February 2024. (Photo: David Van Der Sandt / Gallo Images)

The Blitzboks recently suffered some of the worst defeats in their history, but the problems lie deeper than the coaching.

The Blitzboks have been on a downward trajectory for some time. It started with the Covid-19 pandemic, which continues to haunt the side four years later.

The team is languishing in seventh position, out of 12, in the overall season standings. This follows their worst standings finish to date last season, when they ended eighth. Their previous worst finish was sixth in the 2009/10 season.

Because they ended outside the top four, the side failed to qualify directly for the Olympic Games in Paris.

Adding insult to injury, the Blitzboks lost to Kenya in the final of the Africa Men’s Sevens in Zimbabwe in 2023, in their second attempt at Olympic qualification.

They now have one last shot at going to the Games when they head to the repêchage in Monaco in June.

It has been a calamitous 18 months.

This all happened under head coach Sandile Ngcobo, who was appointed in September 2022, after Neil Powell decided to vacate the post and take up the role of director of rugby at the Sharks.

Ngcobo stepped down as head coach last week, and his assistant, former Springbok Sevens captain Philip Snyman, took over.

Despite the timing of it all, Ngcobo cannot shoulder all the blame. The wheels had already started coming off towards the end of Powell’s tenure.

In the 2021/22 season, South Africa finished as overall series runners-up. But that doesn’t paint the full picture.

The team took gold in their first four tournaments of that world series and were seemingly cruising to become overall champions – before failing to reach the semifinals of the next six tournaments.

They followed that up by finishing seventh at the home World Cup in Cape Town in September 2022, ending Powell’s largely successful nine-year stint as coach without as much as a semifinal appearance in his past seven competitions overall.

Ngcobo was then handed the hat of the captain of a sinking ship.

“A lot of people say we’re missing Neil, but I think Neil will be the first one to agree with me that, even when he was here, in his last couple of months, there was a problem,” Marius Schoeman, the Springbok Sevens high-performance manager, told Daily Maverick.

Suffering Academy

The Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 forced the South African Rugby Union (Saru) to tighten its belt to the tune of about R1-billion to make up for the lack of commercial and broadcasting revenue, among other things that were cut back at the time.

The Springbok Sevens programme, which falls under Saru, had its budgets slashed, which had its biggest effect on the Academy – the Sevens players outside the main Blitzboks squad.

The budget cuts meant international tours were limited, and they remain scarce now.

“We had a successful run [with the Academy] for eight, nine years and then, with Covid, there was a financial implication, and all the funding was cut,” Schoeman said. “It’s not so much the Academy itself, it’s more the international tournaments.”

The last time South Africa’s Sevens Academy played in an international tournament was in August 2021, when they won the Rugby Town 7s in Colorado, US. That was 30 months ago.

Ngcobo was the head coach of that squad, which consisted of Christie Grobbelaar, James Murphy, Ryan Oosthuizen, Shilton van Wyk, Darren Adonis, Shaun Williams, Dewald Human and Tiaan Pretorius, all of whom represented the Blitzboks at some stage this season.

“One of our rules was always that we wanted the boys to play in four to six international tournaments [at Academy level] a year before they play for the senior team,” Schoeman said.

“At the moment we don’t have any such tournaments. The [Academy] guys are training and once there’s an injury [to the senior side] we have to select them without proper tournament experience.

“It happened even when Neil was here, in the 2021 Olympic year. Way back then we could already see the implications of not having a full-time Academy with tournaments. Back then it was Covid that took away those tournaments. But in the past two-and-a-half years we weren’t able to participate in those tournaments and give those youngsters the much-needed game time and development.”

The Springbok Sevens Academy have been invited to an international tournament in Spain in May, but they are awaiting approval from Saru before confirming their attendance.

If they do go to Spain, it will be their first international tournament in 33 months.

Consequences

The Springbok Sevens Academy had its first intake of players in 2012. They included now global stars Kwagga Smith, Cheslin Kolbe, Warrick Gelant, Seabelo Senatla and Justin Geduld.

“The Academy was actually the pillar of our success over the last 10 years,” Schoeman said.

“Unfortunately, now we don’t have that. In my opinion, that is 80% the biggest reason for the poor results the last two seasons.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: Blitzboks coach demoted at request in Saru coaching structure reshuffle

Argentina and Ireland, who are currently first and second on the overall series table this season, have since duplicated South Africa’s Sevens Academy system and play in tournaments all over the world.

“It’s sad to think that we were the first country to start a Sevens Academy and then these countries replicated our blueprint and they’re doing well now [whereas we are not],” Schoeman said.

The brains trust at the Springbok Sevens remains hopeful of a swift return of the Academy to its initial form.

Saru is negotiating an equity deal that promises financial security.

The lack of international tournaments for the Academy has meant that the next tier of Blitzboks lack experience at the highest level. The players in the Academy are not capable of offering realistic competition to the Springbok Sevens regulars.

“You can’t have them playing their first tournament in Hong Kong in front of 50,000 people. They [often] get lost in the moment,” Schoeman said.

South Africa have so far thrown Quewin Nortje, Kat Letebele and Tristan Leyds into the deep end this season.

Though they have held their own to a reasonable extent, their first few tournaments have been used to develop them, whereas previously this process would have been done at Academy level.

South Africa have it all to do at the back end of the season, with only two series left before the grand final in Madrid at the start of June – the month of their final attempt at Olympic qualification.

However, their first task will be at the start of April when they play in Hong Kong. The hope is that, by then, the experience of the season, despite all its inconsistencies, will have improved the side. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Rob Wilson says:

    Cannot agree more. Lets get back to what worked so well. At one stage the Blitzbokke were the only good news in town about South Africa.

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