Blitzboks show defensive desire

The Springbok Sevens are playing to their strengths this season, writes MARK KEOHANE.

Former Blitzboks coach Paul Treu constantly spoke about the need for consistency in performance. He seldom got it from his charges.

He must be feeling rather bemused because the strength of his successor Neil Powell’s Blitzboks has been their consistency.

Treu is the past tense as far as South African sevens goes. He has taken up a new challenge with Kenya and he will be an asset to their evolution.

Powell is the present and the results in the 2013-14 season suggest change was indeed necessary in the national sevens coaching structure. He is a different character to Treu, and the Blitzboks, under Powell, also look a different team.

Treu had early success and had his moments but Powell’s crop remind me of the vintage unit Chester Williams introduced to the Sevens World Series more than a decade ago. It included Jean de Villiers and the team’s primary focus was defence and physicality.

Back then, South Africa dominated teams because of physicality. The scrums, used as a starting point for many teams, became a weapon for Chester’s boys. They won turnover ball at the scrum feed and they used the lineout as a platform. Defence was their mantra, as it is with Powell.

Rugby remains a simple game. Fitness, defence and an ability to counter-attack are elements all the great teams possess, be it in sevens or 15s.

The great teams can absorb pressure and then strike with minimal possession. The great teams have always been the best conditioned.

Powell has recognised this. Conditioning has been integral to the finals wins against New Zealand in Port Elizabeth and Las Vegas. In PE the South Africans trailed 14-0 and won. In Vegas they trailed 7-0 and won.

The defensive effort in Vegas ranks as a tournament high. The side conceded only two tries in six matches, with one of them against New Zealand in the final.

Powell attributed the confidence of the team to their fitness and conditioning. He also applauded the defensive desire within his squad.

South African teams, as a unit, are more comfortable defending than attacking.

It has always been the case. And it’s not a negative.

Powell has picked a squad and is coaching them to play to their strengths. There is attacking ability within the squad but there is also defensive mongrel that was previously as absent as tournament consistency.

The aim of the game is to score tries and to win tournaments. The South Africans are succeeding this season because they give away so little defensively and they force mistakes from the attacking team. The skill of this side is then how they use the turnover ball and how quickly they punish opposition.

Individually, Cecil Afrika, Branco du Preez and Justin Geduld are as skilled as any attacker on the circuit, but there isn’t a squad that can match the collective grunt and imposing physical presence of the South Africans. Kyle Brown’s leadership has also been immense.

Powell has identified his core 12 tournament players from a strong base Treu developed. The difference for me is that Powell has been emphatic in his approach, whereas Treu often seemed caught between the need to defend and the idealism of all-out attack.

Powell’s philosophy is working for South Africa. They have presence and consistency and, with five rounds to play, lead New Zealand by a single point.

The pressure will intensify if they are to win the World Series this season. New Zealand have had a monopoly on the circuit and enjoyed unrivalled success; over the past 10 years they have set the standard in backing up results.

But finally they have a challenger, in terms of physicality, skill and consistency, and they have an opponent who over the past 12 months has been superior on match day.

The challenge is to turn the past 12 months into another 12 months of dominance. And then another 12 months, and then another 12 months that coincide with rugby Olympic gold in 2016.

– This column first appeared in the March 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine