Werner Kok’s decision to stick with sevens has paid off big time, writes SIMON BORCHARDT.
Werner Kok keeps his Commonwealth Games gold medal in a built-in safe. Sure, it would be nice to have it framed and proudly displayed, but the thought of someone breaking into his house and stealing it is too ghastly to contemplate.
So what’s the combination code?
Kok laughs. ‘There’s a key to the safe, not a code, and I keep it on me, so you’d have to kill me to get it!’
If that’s how much Commonwealth gold means to the 22-year-old Blitzboks star, you can only imagine what security measures he will implement to protect Olympic gold, if everything goes according to plan at Rio 2016 when rugby, in the form of sevens, returns to the world’s greatest sports event.
Going to the Olympics has been Kok’s driving ambition ever since he was brought into South Africa’s sevens system by Neil Powell and Marius Schoeman three years ago. The recently retired Blitzboks duo had been impressed with the Hoërskool Nelspruit pupil’s performances for the Pumas at the inaugural U18 provincial sevens tournament and offered him a spot at the SA Sevens Academy, which they were busy setting up. Kok had been offered a trial at the Bulls following the U18 Craven Week, where he had played inside centre for the Pumas, but opted to make the move to Stellenbosch instead.
There, he was given the opportunity to play for the SA Sevens Academy team coached by Powell and Schoeman and train with the senior Blitzboks squad. He also stayed in touch with the 15-man game by playing wing for the Western Province side that won the U19 provincial tournament.
‘I was a bit tempted to carry on playing 15s, especially with Province,’ admits Kok, ‘but my heart was in sevens and I wanted to go to the Olympics in 2016.’
Kok made his Blitzboks debut at the London Sevens in May 2013 and has been a regular member of the squad ever since. During two glorious weeks last December, he was named Player of the Tournament in Dubai, and named in World Rugby’s Dream Team for the Dubai and PE tournaments, both of which the Blitzboks won.
While that was a special time for Kok, it’s the gold-medal win at the Commonwealth Games that remains the most memorable day of his life.
‘I got seven minutes in the final as a replacement for Cornal Hendricks,’ he recalls. ‘We were leading 17-12 with a few seconds to go when New Zealand moved the ball into the midfield, but our defence closed up quickly and they knocked on. When Mark Richards gave me the ball from the resultant scrum, with time up on the clock, I ran a couple of paces towards the touchline and kicked the ball into the stands. I made sure it went out!’
It was a massive result for the Blitzboks, who became the first team other than New Zealand to win gold since sevens was introduced at the Commonwealth Games in 1998, but they didn’t get to celebrate properly in Glasgow that night.
‘The organisers wanted us out of the athletes’ village as soon as possible and we had a 6am flight the next day,’ says Kok. ‘So we just had a beer or two in the change room afterwards and then packed our bags. We didn’t mind too much, though, because your body is so sore after two days of rugby that you actually don’t want to party. We celebrated properly when we came home.’
That tournament win was the Blitzboks’ third since Powell replaced Paul Treu as head coach in October 2013, following success at the PE and Las Vegas Sevens. While the team wouldn’t win another Cup title in the 2013-14 World Series, it was clear that Powell had helped take their game to the next level, and that they would be serious contenders to win the World Series in 2014-15. That’s proved to be the case so far this season, with the Blitzboks topping the standings after three tournaments.
Kok is a big fan of the man who gave him his big break three years ago.
‘Coach Neil works with us very differently,’ he says. ‘When he took over [from Treu], the guys started to work so much harder for each other and there was a huge shift in the team culture. Fitness and decision-making can be improved on the training field, but not attitude. Coach Neil has created a winning environment.
‘He does a lot of work behind the scenes, including analysis of games,’ Kok adds. ‘He also trains with us and takes the hits, so while he’s the coach, we see him as part of the team.’
Kok has thrived under Powell and become one of the country’s most valuable sevens assets.
‘I’m particularly proud of my work ethic, I never stop working,’ he says when asked what he considers to be his strengths.
‘I try to be the fittest guy in the team, but there are always guys like Kwagga [Smith] and Kyle [Brown] who are pushing me. I also love defence, and if someone comes into my channel I want to smash him.
‘There is, of course, always room for improvement, and for me it’s my decision-making on attack. I want to become like Cecil [Afrika] who, when three or four options present themselves, always takes the right one.’
If Kok continues to improve, and he should as he gains more experience, he will be a shoo-in for the Blitzboks Olympic squad. And another gold medal – the most precious of them all – could find a home inside that built-in safe.
KOK ON …
HIS SCHOOL RUGBY CAREER
‘I played flyhalf and inside centre at Nelspruit Primary, before being shifted to wing when I was 12. When I was selected for the Pumas U12 team they played me at inside centre, which is where I stayed throughout high school, although I did play outside centre and wing when required. When I was picked for the Pumas U18 Craven Week team they tried to play me everywhere at first, but I told them I preferred 12 and was more comfortable there. I played the last couple games for the Nelspruit 1st XV in my Grade 10 year and then throughout Grade 11 and 12. In Grade 11, when I was 17, we won the Mpumalanga Cup by beating Middelburg on our home turf.’
FIFTEEN-A-SIDE PLAYERS ADJUSTING TO SEVENS
‘Sevens is much faster than 15s, and you have to think on your feet. Everything happens so quickly, and it takes two or three tournaments to get used to the speed of the game and the guys you are playing with.The Blitzboks have a very basic game plan that is adjusted according to our opponents, so a 15s player can slot in relatively easily, but you have to be able to execute it when you are tired, so you need to be very fit.’
FITNESS TRAINING IN SEVENS
‘We do a lot of fitness, including cardio in the gym – like treadmill running and rowing – but each on-field training session is basically a fitness session. You can run lines and do bleep tests, but that alone doesn’t determine what happens during a match, so we do a lot of game-related fitness sessions.’
WHEN HE WILL RETURN TO 15-A-SIDE RUGBY
‘I’d like to play Currie Cup rugby this year during the sevens off-season and return to 15s for good after the Olympic Games. My favourite position is inside centre, as you are always involved in the game and can take the ball to the line or send it wide.’
– This article first appeared in the March 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine