The Blitzboks believe they can top the podium at the Olympic Games in Rio, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
The Blitzboks have dealt with their fair share of heartbreak along the way to a runners-up finish in this season’s World Rugby Sevens Series. And yet if they emerge with a gold medal at the Rio Olympics in August, all that pain will have been worth the gain.
In March, the Blitzboks suffered an agonising 19-14 defeat to New Zealand in the Cup final of the inaugural Vancouver Sevens, while less than a month later, their arch-rivals were at it again, this time snatching an extra-time victory in the Cup semi-finals of the Hong Kong Sevens. At the next tournament in Singapore, it was then the turn of Fiji to score a last-minute try that prevented the Blitzboks’ progression to the Cup final.
It was a painful trend that also reared its head at the final tournament in London where Scotland scored two quick-fire tries at the death to snatch a one-point win over the Blitzboks in the Cup final.
Yet as difficult as those results may have been to stomach, they have served to strengthen the Blitzboks’ mental resolve as they prepare to head into the Summer Olympics, where rugby’s ‘sexy’ sport of sevens is set to debut.
Coach Neil Powell has assembled a powerful squad, with this season’s expanded Sevens Series serving as an important stepping stone on the road to Rio.
During the course of the season, Powell has rotated his squad to good effect, exposing a number of newcomers to the sevens set-up – including a host of 15s players such as Bryan Habana and Juan de Jongh – while strengthening the competition within the squad.
Sevens specialists such as Seabelo Senatla, Justin Geduld and Cecil Afrika have recognised the need to raise their game in the face of renewed competition, and have responded with some glittering performances.
Kyle Brown and Philip Snyman have also dovetailed effectively as leaders of the team, with the Blitzboks expanding their leadership group as part of a carefully considered plan to ensure a well-rounded squad heads into the Rio Games with all bases covered.
And although Powell’s charges finished second in the series, once again falling short of front-runners Fiji, the ultimate goal has always been the Olympics. It represents the finish line of a lengthy and often gruelling journey that began back in November when Powell first unveiled a star-studded 33-man squad that had been earmarked for Olympic consideration.
Along the way, certain players have fallen by the wayside, while some 15s stars have been unable to stake a claim for selection as originally planned, but Powell believes it’s all been part of the process.
‘We’ve learned something from every tournament this season, not just in terms of individuals or game plans, but as a team and in terms of the mental side of things … Every tournament we gained something and hopefully banked invaluable lessons that will stand us in good stead at the Olympics.
‘We tested a lot of 15s players to see if they were capable and we were happy with what we saw. I think we achieved most of what we wanted to from the season and although we didn’t win the series, there was plenty we could take out of it.’
Powell believes one of the biggest learning curves came out of those agonising defeats that the Blitzboks suffered on repeated occasions, with the side gaining first-hand experience of the pitfalls of failing to play until the final second.
‘We’re far from the finished product and I know people were concerned about those games we lost right at the death,’ Powell readily acknowledges. ‘But the fact remains that we’d rather have had those experiences then, as opposed to during the Olympics. There were situations we can look back on and learn from, so we know how to deal with them when we face them again. We’ve got a good foundation to work from and we have to take those lessons on board and rectify it before the Olympics.’
In sevens, the importance of safely securing the kick-offs cannot be overstated. It’s part of the reason Powell sought to secure the services of taller players such as Ryan Kankowski and Tim Agaba, who provide that extra height and size.
It’s one of the areas, though, that Powell admits remains a work-in-progress.
‘We have to identify the errors that allowed the opposition back in during some key moments. Some of those mistakes certainly came from kick-offs where we lost possession, and it cost us. We have to hang on to the ball better, and it’s something to focus on.
‘We have also worked very hard on our rucking, and when we take the ball into contact, ensure we retain possession because that is an area where you can concede turnovers.’
Although Powell made use of an extended squad during a lengthy season, he trimmed his preliminary Olympic squad down to 19 players in June, with seven more set to be cut before travelling to Brazil as part of Team SA.
Powell opted to include four players with Springbok Test match experience in his original group, with Francois Hougaard, Habana, Kankowski and De Jongh all cracking the nod after featuring in at least two tournaments during the Sevens Series.
‘The 15s players who featured did well to adapt to the game plan quickly and contributed a lot to our culture, so credit to them and the way they adjusted,’ Powell reflects. ‘It’s two very different forms of rugby and there is a lot of detail that goes into defence and the roles of each guy on the field. I’m really happy with how it worked out and the way a number of sevens specialists were willing to assist the 15s players even though they’re competing for places. It shows the culture in the sevens side and it’s been an enormous squad effort aimed at ensuring we’re as well prepared as possible for Rio.’
The Blitzboks’ final competitive form of preparation saw them compete against African counterparts, an invitational Western Province team and the SA Academy Sevens side in the top tier of the Assupol Sevens tournament in early July.
Beyond that, Powell says they will be focusing on plenty of strength and conditioning work, while honing a number of other core skills such as their kick-off receipts, lineouts and rucking in the lead-up to the Olympics.
It’s been a long journey along the road to Rio for Powell and his talented charges, but as Olympic gold medallist Cameron van der Burgh once made famous with the words ‘Ke Nako’ written on his hands: it is time.
‘Every player going to Rio will need to perform; it will be a different sort of environment and for a once-off tournament like the Olympics, you need to select a team that is in form and confident to go out and do the job,’ Powell says. ‘It’s what we’ve been working towards for so long and the waiting is nearly over. We can’t wait to get going.’
Blitzboks Olympic fixtures (SA times):
Tuesday, 9 August:
vs Spain (16:30)
vs France (21:30)
Wednesday, 10 August
vs Australia (16:30)
Start of playoffs (21:00)
Blitzboks squad – Kyle Brown (c), Tim Agaba, Philip Snyman, Werner Kok, Dylan Sage, Kwagga Smith, Rosco Speckman, Cheslin Kolbe, Cecil Afrika, Justin Geduld, Juan de Jongh, Seabelo Senatla.
Travelling reserves: Chris Dry, Francois Hougaard.
RUGBY AT THE OLYMPICS
Rugby makes its debut at the Paris Olympics, with the three national Olympic committees, France, Germany and Great Britain, entering teams. The host nation wins the gold medal, beating Great Britain 27-8, while also defeating Germany 27-17.
Having not been included in the 1904 St Louis Games, rugby returns for the London Olympics. Great Britain (this time including Ireland), Australasia and France enter teams, but France pull out before the start of the tournament. The solitary game sees Australasia secure a 32-3 win over Great Britain, represented by Cornwall.
Just two teams compete for the gold medal at the Antwerp Games, with the USA – predominantly a group of Californian students – causing a shock when they beat France 8-0. USA squad member Morris Kirksey goes on to clinch two more medals at the Olympics, earning silver in the 100m sprint and a gold medal in the 4x100m relay team.
France, the USA and Romania enter teams for the Paris Games. The gold-medal match is played in front of 21 000 spectators, with the USA clinching a 17-3 win over France that incenses a number of the home
fans, who storm the pitch at the final whistle. The pitch invasion is believed to have played a part in rugby’s subsequent exclusion from the Olympics.
– This article first appeared in the August 2016 issue of SA Rugby magazine