Feature: Sevens stars making an impact

South Africa’s domestic season has been lit up by sevens converts, writes DYLAN JACK in the latest SA Rugby magazine.

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When Kurt-Lee Arendse received the ball inside his own 22m area while playing for the Bulls in the Super Fan Saturday match against the Sharks, he showed what everyone has come to expect from someone who has starred on the sevens circuit: out-and-out pace.

Despite having several Sharks defenders coming across the field to cover him, Arendse outsprinted them all on a weaving 80m run for his first of two tries in that match.

Arendse is just one of the several Blitzboks looking to make the most of a difficult situation after the first four tournaments of the 2020-21 Sevens Series were called off due to the continuing uncertainty surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic.

He has been joined at the Bulls by 23-year-old Blitzboks vice-captain Stedman Gans, who has added a level of creativity and ingenuity in the team’s midfield.

Meanwhile, Malcolm Jaer and Rosko Specman were in free-scoring form on the wings for the Cheetahs, boosting the Free State side to the top of the table after the first couple of rounds of the Super Rugby Unlocked competition.

It also took Werner Kok, the 2015 Sevens Player of the Year, just under five minutes to score a try on his official starting debut for the Sharks.

In the Western Cape, Angelo Davids has set the U21 Championship alight, scoring two hat-tricks in three games, while only an injury denied Seabelo Senatla the opportunity to hit the ground running after earning selection for the Springbok Showdown match.

‘I must say, they have really done well,’ Blitzboks coach Neil Powell tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘With Kurty, we always knew he is an exceptional rugby player, especially with ball in hand. He has got amazing running skills and showed it in the Super Fan game.

‘Stedman is one of those guys who has got everything to make it in fifteens. It will be very good to see how he goes. Even a guy like Angelo, who scored two hat-tricks in three games. It is impressive. The acceleration he showed in all of his tries was excellent. I didn’t think he was that quick, he seemed to be quicker than when he was with us.

‘It is great to see those guys. Werner is also doing pretty well with the Sharks. I would love to see Zain Davids at the Sharks play, if he gets the opportunity. Unfortunately Muller du Plessis didn’t get a long opportunity because of injury, but it will be great to see what he is capable of when he gets his chance.’

Their success points to a blurring of the lines between sevens and fifteens, where the often smaller sevens players are now being seen as worthy and are being invested in by South Africa’s rugby franchises.

‘As a sevens system, our goal is not only to develop sevens players, but we also want to develop rugby players for SA Rugby, whether they decide to stay with sevens or use sevens as a stepping stone to get to the fifteens system,’ says Powell. ‘We are happy to help SA Rugby reach their goals. The confirmation you get when those guys are performing well is great.’

Powell adds that the fast-paced and unpredictable nature of the Sevens Series has created a mental strength in sevens players which aids in their ability to transition between the two formats of the game.

‘I don’t think it’s just the physical attributes or skills, the guys also pick up a lot of mental skills in the sevens environment. The stadiums they play in are small with a great atmosphere. There is a similar pressure to a Super Rugby or Currie Cup game.

‘You almost go through a mental rollercoaster of playing three games in one day. If you lose one, then two hours later, you need to pick yourself up for another game and do well again. You pick up an ability to close the door and focus on the next thing.

‘The difference between winning and losing in sevens is now very small,’ Powell adds. ‘The results are always balanced on a knife’s edge and the bounce of a ball can get you in trouble.

‘The fact you have to prepare so well makes a big difference. You have so many different defensive and attacking systems and you need to know exactly what you must do against those systems. If you miss a tackle, it is seven points against you. You need to be so much more accurate in sevens, especially in terms of defence.’

Springbok assistant coach Mzwandile Stick – himself a former Blitzboks captain who moved to fifteens in the latter stages of his career – points to Cheslin Kolbe’s success as laying a platform for other similarly diminutive backs to succeed in fifteens.

During his days with Western Province, Kolbe was seen as someone who potentially had a brighter future in sevens than he did in fifteens, before the success that came with his move to France with Toulouse.

‘Cheslin comes from that system and is now one of the best in the world. Also look at someone like Rosko, who was really good at the Bulls. It’s so good to see they can make it from sevens into fifteens,’ Stick says.

‘Sometimes it used to be a case of sidelining someone with an excuse about size, but now these players are getting an opportunity if it’s seen that they play with a big heart and courage. Size doesn’t matter any more and these players are coming through now.’

Their success is also down to fifteens rugby’s emphasis on speeding the game up and ensuring as much ball-in-play time as possible.

When speaking to the local media, Gans pointed this out as a change sevens converts can benefit from.

‘Playing tempo is very important now and that’s how you get the defence out of breath and then take that space; that’s when guys like Kurt-Lee Arendse and myself come into it,’ he explained. ‘From sevens we’ve learned how to manipulate defences and it’s how the fifteens game is evolving, the tempo is picking up and you’re going to see sevens players make more and more of an impact.

‘At the Sevens squad, getting off the ground quickly is very important to coach Neil so it’s almost second nature for me, and now it’s something coach Jake White measures you on too. It was also his plan from the start for myself and [inside centre] Cornal Hendricks to feed off each other. We both like running and offloading and we have a big pack that’s going to create space for us to play that running game.’

White, who has had a reputation of favouring larger players, says changes to the rules have accelerated the integration of sevens players.

‘The rules now encourage players to carry the ball, especially with tacklers now expected to roll away immediately at the breakdown,’ he says. ‘It means you’re going to be afforded more space and that’s where the strengths of players with sevens experience come to the fore.

‘They can catch and pass effectively. Their defence is robust and they understand the game so well. You immediately see when you start working with them that their work ethic is excellent. It’s encouraging for me that we can incorporate such players so seamlessly into the fifteen-man format.

‘It’s really a feather in the cap of Neil Powell and [Sevens academy coach] Marius Schoeman. They work superbly with those players, whose basic skills are unbelievable.

‘I’m told I usually only like big okes and that we’re only going to play like the Bulls used to,’ White added. ‘But these are little guys with lots of skill and pace and I’m really excited about them. Watch this space.’

*This feature first appeared in the latest SA Rugby magazine, now on sale!

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Craig Lewis