Branco back with a vengeance

Branco du Preez tells SIMON BORCHARDT how he put last season’s disappointments behind him to help the Blitzboks win the World Rugby Sevens Series.

You played in your 50th Sevens Series tournament for the Blitzboks at the Las Vegas Sevens in March. What did that milestone mean to you?
It was a privilege and honour, as only three other Blitzboks had achieved it at the time [Frankie Horne, Kyle Brown and Chris Dry]. When I made my debut for the team in 2010 [at the Wellington Sevens] I never thought I would go on to play in 50 tournaments. The day before the Vegas Sevens, I received my 50th tournament Blitzboks jersey and a gold cap with ‘50’ on it. It was a special occasion for me, and the fact that we went on to win the tournament made it even more memorable.

You were part of the Blitzboks teams that won the Vegas tournament in 2011, 2013, 2014 and 2017. Why have South Africa been so successful there?
The field is a bit narrower, which suits our defensive game. Vegas has been good for us and because we’ve achieved success there, we always arrive at the tournament full of confidence.

Having finished second on the Sevens Series standings for the past four seasons, the Blitzboks have won it for the first time since 2008-09. What has given South Africa the edge this season?
We’ve backed our system and know that if we look after it, it will look after us. We’ve focused on small things that we want to achieve as a team and as individuals, and gone into every tournament knowing what we want to achieve.

How disruptive has it been for the Blitzboks to lose key players to injury and Super Rugby call-ups?
We did have to make adjustments when we lost those players, as they played a big role for us. But we were able to bring the new guys into our system without causing too much disruption.

As one of the senior players in the squad, have you had to take on more responsibility since those key men left?
Yes, the guys who have been around for a while – like myself, Chris Dry, Werner Kok and Justin Geduld – have had to step up. We’ve guided the youngsters and let them know what we expect from them.

You played only four tournaments last season due to injury and missed out on the Olympic Games in Rio as a result. How did you handle that disappointment?
It was the saddest part of my career, and it took me a while to get over the disappointment and move on. Going to the Olympics was something I really wanted to achieve. I also didn’t know whether I would be offered a new contract and get the chance to play for the Blitzboks again. Fortunately, I was given a one-year contract.

Did last season’s setbacks give you extra motivation to perform this season?
Yes. I realised how blessed I was to be injury-free and focused on playing at my best.

It’s still a long way off, but have you given any thought to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo? You’ll be 30 then, but someone like Cecil Afrika is still playing, and he’s 29.

I haven’t really thought about it, but it would be awesome to play in those Olympics, having missed out on the last one. I definitely think I can make it to Tokyo. We’re managed well by the coaches and we look after our bodies.

What is your role with the Blitzboks, and what are the strengths and weaknesses in your game?
My role is to create space and attacking opportunities for my teammates. Defence is a strength of my game; I like to make tackles. I could improve my support play when we’re attacking.

You hold the Blitzboks record for the most conversions in the Sevens Series. How much time do you spend on that aspect of your game, considering conversions in sevens are taken as drop goals?
I practise my goal-kicking for two to three hours on our off-day during the week when we’re in South Africa. When we’re overseas for a tournament, I try to get in a few kicks at the venue just to get a feel for the field. As the goal-kicker, you need to be ready for any situation in a game. You may need to take a conversion quickly to have enough time for the restart, or the coaches may signal to you not to take the conversion at all, as it will waste precious time.

Is there a conversion from your career that stands out for you?
In Dubai, I had a conversion attempt from the sideline, and the crowd started to boo. I had to focus on my rhythm and the things I do before I kick the ball. I got into the zone and as soon as I kicked the ball I knew it was over. I never even looked up, I just listened to the crowd and the referee’s whistle.

Let’s go back to your high-school days. You attended PW Botha College in George before going to Hentie Cilliers in Virginia so that you could go to the Harmony Sports Academy in Welkom, 25km away. How did that come about?
One of the coaches from Harmony came to PW Botha and spoke to the principal about me joining the academy. The principal told him he couldn’t speak to me, but during break time, someone called me over to the coach and he asked me if I wanted to play good rugby. I said yes, because PW Botha didn’t have a great team. I attended Hentie Cilliers during my Standard 9 [Grade 11] and matric years, and went to the Harmony Academy after school for rugby. I ended up playing Craven Week and U19 rugby for the Griffons in 2007 and 2008, before joining the Bulls after school.

How did the move to Pretoria happen?
My coach at Harmony, Jacques Juries, did a lot of work in terms of looking for contracts for players after school. The Bulls offered me a really good contract.

In 2009 you played for TUT in the Varsity Cup and for the Bulls U19s. Why did you switch to sevens in 2010?
I was spending a lot of time on the Bulls bench, so I decided to accept the invitation to attend a Blitzboks training camp, with the Bulls’ blessing. Things started happening for me in sevens after that.

Have you ever been tempted to return to the 15-man game?
When I left the Bulls, I decided to focus on sevens, but I have recently starting thinking about playing fifteens again. I’d like to play for the Lions or Cheetahs, whose style of play suits mine.

You played scrumhalf, inside centre and outside centre for the Junior Boks at the U20 World Championship in 2010. Were you regarded as a utility back at the time and where would you like to settle if you returned to fifteens?
I was on the bench because I could cover all the backline positions. If I returned to fifteens, I’d like to focus on scrumhalf. I haven’t played there for ages, but we focus a lot on passing and other skills in sevens, so I don’t think it would be too difficult for me to settle back into the position.

– This Q&A first appeared in the June 2017 issue of SA Rugby magazine.


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