Juan adds value to sevens

Juan de Jongh has added a different dimension to the Blitzboks side since making his return to the sevens scene, writes CRAIG LEWIS.

De Jongh was one of the big-name inclusions when the Springbok Sevens announced their extended squad for the new season back in November, with a host of high-profile 15s players coming into the reckoning in an Olympic year.

For De Jongh, it signified a return to sevens for the first time since making his first and only appearance for the Blitzboks in 2008, and yet he’s looked very much at home in the shortened format of the game.

There are those who have questioned the fairness of suddenly including a number of 15s players in the sevens set-up, but in sport, there is no room for sentimentality.

De Jongh is certainly not the fastest or most flashy player in the Blitzboks squad, but he has proven the value that can be added by a player with 15s experience.

He has brought an extra element of physicality to a largely diminutive Blitzboks side, while his decision-making – particularly when it comes to taking the ball to the line – and experience in high-pressure situations has been of real benefit to Neil Powell’s side.

In the chaos that reigned during the latter stages of Sunday’s Cup final against New Zealand, it was largely overlooked that De Jongh had hobbled from the field with an injury midway through the match. His presence was sorely missed when the heat was on.

Seabelo Senatla, Kwagga Smith and Rosco Specman were all included in the sevens dream team for the Wellington event, but De Jongh’s influence – while not as eye-catching – was no less integral to the Blitzboks’ cause.

In the absence of injured stars such as Werner Kok, Cecil Afrika, Kyle Brown, Frankie Horne and Rayno Benjamin, he has also added much-needed depth and experience to the Blitzboks’ ranks.

De Jongh has illustrated the value 15s players can bring to the shortened form of the game in a similar vein to Cheslin Kolbe, who has produced regular moments of magic over the first three tournaments of the series. When the duo return to the Stormers for Super Rugby, the Blitzboks will be poorer for it.

Over the course of this season, the opportunity will also arise for the likes of Springboks Ryan Kankowski, Damian de Allende, Bryan Habana and Lwazi Mvovo to deliver their sevens salvos, and it’s a prospect that should be welcomed, not discouraged.

There is absolutely no chance the Blitzboks are going to become a side completely laden with 15s players. Specialists such as Senatla, Brown and Justin Geduld are superstars in their own right and will always hold down a place on merit. Yet it’s the combining of forces between 15s and sevens that is clearly healthy for both forms of the game, but even more so for sevens.

At the Olympics in Rio in August, genuine gold medal contenders from South Africa will be few and far between, particularly away from the swimming pool. But in the Blitzboks, boasting a strong and competitive squad, South Africa has a team that will be strong favourites to clinch gold. That’s a fact that should be celebrated.

The inclusion of international players such as De Jongh has also helped raise the profile of the sevens game, just as the involvement of World Cup winner Sonny Bill Williams has.

Williams produced a bit of a mixed bag during his sevens debut this past weekend, creating a moment of magic to help New Zealand clinch a win over the Blitzboks on day one before enduring a nightmare performance in the final.

Yet in a similar way to De Jongh and someone like Francois Hougaard, he will learn and get better, and ultimately his involvement will strengthen the side he plays for, not to mention his ability to serve as a major crowd drawcard.

And when it comes to sevens, I can only imagine that more and more youngsters must be watching this energetic and entertaining form of the game and beginning to consider it as a viable sporting career option.

While the crowd support in Wellington was hugely disappointing, the Cape Town Sevens was a sellout and huge success, while this weekend’s inaugural Sydney tournament is set to draw 70,000 supporters.

And it’s the impression made by players of the calibre of De Jongh and Williams that’s undoubtedly serving as another factor in attracting such fanfare.

Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

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Craig Lewis