The Blitzboks can make this a year to remember for themselves and departing coach Neil Powell, writes SIMON BORCHARDT.
Last year’s Olympic Games disappointment must feel like a distant memory for the Blitzboks. Since then, they have won six consecutive World Rugby Sevens Series tournaments and 34 matches in a row (breaking their record of 16 set during the 2008-09 season).
Yes, they have done so in the absence of New Zealand, who have not played since the Olympics due to their country’s Covid-19 border restrictions. Fiji missed the only two tournaments of the 2021 Sevens Series in Canada and the two-tournament Spanish leg this season due to Covid-positive tests among players and staff. Meanwhile, Great Britain competed in the two Dubai tournaments this season, with England, Scotland and Wales returning as separate teams for the two tournaments in Spain.
But the Blitzboks could only play – and beat – what was in front of them, and they did so while overcoming several challenges.
The Blitzbok squad for the Dubai double-header was missing five players from Canada due to injury, including Angelo Davids and Dewald Human, while another five players, including Justin Geduld, were still in injury rehab. Ryan Oosthuizen and Muller du Plessis got injured while playing in the first Dubai tournament, leaving the Blitzboks with only 11 fit players for the second, and forcing coach Neil Powell and other management members to jump in to make it two teams of seven at training. Captain Siviwe Soyizwapi was then ruled out of the Seville Sevens due to injury, Human suspended for a dangerous tackle on day one, Branco du Preez injured in the quarter-final and Geduld stretchered off in the final.
The Blitzboks had to dig deep at times, no more so than in the final of the Malaga Sevens when they trailed Argentina 17-12 with a minute remaining. Soyizwapi’s side showed great composure under pressure, with Geduld dotting down to level the scores and Selvyn Davids scoring the match-winner well into stoppage time.
South Africa’s tactical acumen has also shone through this season, with their defensive breakdown work the biggest factor in their success. They lead the field in breakdown arrivals and turnovers won, and know when to attempt to steal or disrupt opposition ball.
Having got the results he wanted, Powell has achieved another key objective for this season – building squad depth by giving more players game time and exposure. Shilton van Wyk and Tiaan Pretorius were capped in Dubai, while Christie Grobbelaar, Shaun Williams, Ronald Brown, Mfundo Ndhlovu and Darren Adonis all gained valuable experience, which could prove vital later this year.
While the Blitzboks should easily defend their Sevens Series title having built up such a big lead after four tournaments, they will ultimately be judged on their performances at the two biggest tournaments of 2022 – the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in July and the World Cup in Cape Town in September.
The Blitzboks will go into the former as favourites to win gold considering their two biggest rivals, New Zealand and Fiji, will be relatively underprepared (they are set to return to the Sevens Series in April). And while South Africa have never won a Sevens World Cup in seven attempts, they will have a golden opportunity to make history in front of their fans at Cape Town Stadium.
An unprecedented treble would be the perfect send-off for Powell, who will join the Sharks after the World Cup, and set the Blitzboks up well for their next major challenge – the 2024 Olympics in Paris.