There will be no second chances for the Blitzboks in San Francisco as they attempt to win the Sevens World Cup for the first time. BRENDEN NEL reports.
If sightings of the Sevens World Cup trophy tend to lead to bulging eyes, tears and cries of ‘my precious’ around the Springbok Sevens training camp in Stellenbosch, don’t be overly surprised.
Lord of the Rings analogies aside, the Sevens World Cup is the Holy Grail in the sport, the golden chalice, and for South Africa’s globetrotting superstars it has become the unattainable, the forbidden fruit they desire so much.
But perhaps not any more.
This July the seventh edition of the World Cup for rugby’s famous shortened version is back, and the Blitzboks have set their sights on it.
While there has been more than enough success on the World Rugby Sevens Series circuit, one-off tournaments are notorious for their cruel and callous handling of teams’ aspirations and the Blitzboks have fallen victim to this more than once.
In fact, the closest the team ever got to grabbing the trophy was in Hong Kong in 1997 where a star-studded team – led by Joost van der Westhuizen and including the likes of Pieter Rossouw, André Venter and Bob Skinstad – made it to the final, and then were beaten by the magic of South Sea magicians Fiji.
South Africa’s rich sevens history also contains its own dark corners, especially as far as one-off tournaments in sevens are concerned. Apart from the World Games in Colombia a few years back and the Commonwealth Games victory four years ago, there has been little success to speak about.
In World Cup terms, South Africa have a hoodoo that hangs over them, and no matter how well they seem to prepare, every time they seem to fall at a hurdle they shouldn’t even stumble at.
But come 20 July, the Blitzboks will begin their crusade once more to attain the one title that has eluded them over the years, and this time there is hope the sevens world’s most professional outfit will have the consistency to overcome the obstacles, internally and externally, that have cost them so dearly in the past.
The compact format of the tournament will also test the teams more than before, especially as it is a straight knockout from the start. While the Blitzboks have been seeded No 1 because of their consistency over the Sevens Series, they face a tricky opener – probably against Ireland – to get their tournament rolling.
Former captain Kyle Brown believes the change in format not only makes it more dangerous, but could also suit the Blitzboks if they get their act together early. It may well also be a big danger for their greatest rivals, Fiji.
‘Coach Neil [Powell] has been focusing on a strategy for these one-off tournaments and started this process heading into the Olympics,’ Brown says. ‘It came about after we seemed to do OK in the first week but were good in the second tournament in a two-week cycle. In the past few years we put a lot more importance on the one-off tournaments and it worked well with the Commonwealth Games in 2014 and World Games in 2013, but at the Olympics we didn’t quite get it right in terms of consistency of performance.’
Brown believes the format change will be dangerous as it takes away ‘second chances’.
‘It makes it even more important to get it right because a straight knockout not only adds a bit of excitement but it also takes away second chances. There is no more buggering around in the pool, and escaping the fire. If you are knocked out you are gone. It means the most important thing is consistency at a higher level,’ he says.
‘Fiji often tend to creep through the pool stage and then slowly increase their performance. They can face a France, or Samoa who can beat them and then they’re done. It makes it bloody interesting.’
The other factor is that an American field is often a lot shorter than the normal field sevens is played on, which makes tactics a much tougher component to the campaign.
As former Blitzboks coach Paul Treu points out, the fields, such as the ones teams play on in Las Vegas, can play a massive role.
‘An American field makes a big difference in preparation and can change your game plan for the tournament. Kicking suddenly becomes more tactical and territory is key, especially with a smaller field. You can smother another team in their own half if you play correctly,’ Treu says. ‘Four passes on a normal field can become three or two. And with many teams playing sideline to sideline nowadays, they won’t be used to the width. That is why you see teams passing out of bounds in Vegas. But you can counter it and adjust your field sessions to the special requirements. That will need to be done when you get to the tournament.’
The Blitzboks history is also something that counts against them. After 1997, the team lost in the quarters to Argentina in 2001 in a massive shock. In 2005, Hong Kong’s humidity got the better of them, while in 2009 the World Cup took place in the middle of the Sevens Series, and the Blitzboks chose to concentrate more on the series than a one-off tournament. Still, the bizarre results saw Fiji, New Zealand, England and South Africa all lose in the quarters, and Wales, Argentina, Kenya and Samoa vie for the crown.
In 2013 the team was on fire, and as Brown recalls, ‘was possibly the strongest team I have played in’, scoring almost 100 points on day one without conceding a point. But then a citing of Brown, for an apparent eye gouge (which was in a hand-off) affected the side dearly. He and the management were stuck in the hearing until 11 that evening, when he received a long ban, and appealed the next morning, with the team leaving for the stadium without him. The ban was eventually reduced to two matches, a farce for the tournament, but one that affected the Blitzboks’ psyche, and saw them lose by one conversion to Fiji.
It was a reminder that the strangest of things can kill off a campaign. And with San Francisco waiting for the Blitzboks again, they can only prepare to the best of their ability. And then look to click into action as quickly as possible.
Blitzboks’ Sevens World Cup finishes
Sevens World Cup finals
1993: England 21 Australia 17
1997: Fiji 24 South Africa 21
2001: New Zealand 31 Australia 12
2005: Fiji 29 New Zealand 19
2009: Wales 19 Argentina 12
2013: New Zealand 33 England 0
– This article first appeared in the July 2018 issue of SA Rugby magazine.