World Rugby Sevens Player of the Year Werner Kok will not rest on his laurels during this Olympic season, writes SIMON BORCHARDT.
The music at the Stellenbosch Academy of Sport gym is pumping. The size of the Springbok Sevens training squad has seen it split into two and the first group of players are on the gym floor, stretching. The music – a mix of hip-hop, R&B and house – doesn’t prevent the players from chatting to each other and cracking the odd joke, and they don’t seem to be too bothered by the presence of the media, including photographers who are snapping away.
The new additions to the squad, from the 15-a-side game, predictably attract the most attention. Springbok scrumhalf Francois Hougaard, who has signed a sevens deal for the 2015-16 season, is doing band walks, which sees him stepping laterally, in a half-squat position, with a resistance band wrapped around his ankles (it strengthens the glutes and helps prevent knee injuries). Golden Lions captain Jaco Kriel is sitting on a gym ball in the jockey position (his feet are off the floor with the balancing act helping to strengthen his core), while teammate Warren Whiteley is chatting to team biokineticist Allan Temple-Jones. A metre away, Lwazi Mvovo shows off his dance moves, which draws more laughter.
It’s a short, scenic walk across the river to the indoor training facility at Paul Roos Gymnasium and the second group of Blitzboks. They’re in the middle of the 50x40m synthetic field, taking turns to jump up and touch a small soccer ball, which has been suspended just out of their reach by a wire that runs from one wall to the other. Players are required to stand still under the ball and then quickly take four or five steps backwards before sprinting towards the ball and jumping. Taller players like
Cornal Hendricks and Oupa Mohoje are sometimes able to get a whole hand on the ball, while the likes of Kyle Brown and Werner Kok, who are smaller in stature, do well just to get a finger to it.
‘The opposition tries to kick on you from restarts in such a way that you are static when receiving the ball and can’t create the movement you need to jump as high as possible,’ Kok explains later. ‘This exercise teaches you to create an angle, run forward as quickly as you can and get the explosiveness you need to get up to the space and dominate it. Kick-offs are an important aspect of sevens, because the team that scores a try has to restart the game and you want to get the ball back straight away.’
Kok has lost count of the number of interviews he’s done since winning the 2015 World Rugby Sevens Player of the Year award eight days earlier. He did the first at Heathrow Airport, the morning after the awards ceremony, and has done ‘more than 20’ TV and radio interviews since, including a couple at the Stellenbosch Academy of Sport before sitting down with SA Rugby magazine.
The 22-year-old travelled to the awards in London with teammate and fellow nominee Seabelo Senatla, who scored the most tries (47) in last year’s World Series. Yet it was Kok, who made the second most ball-carries (130) and the most tackles (116), who was called up to receive the trophy from Ireland legend Brian O’Driscoll.
‘I honestly didn’t think I had a chance of winning the award, as Seabelo had such an amazing season and scored all those tries,’ Kok says. ‘But I’m just glad it was won by a South African [Fiji’s Semi Kunatani was also nominated] and we celebrated properly that night! It was a great event and I enjoyed being around big-name players like Richie McCaw, Sonny Bill Williams, Schalk Burger and Victor Matfield.’
The previous day, Kok and Senatla had attended the World Cup final at Twickenham as guests of World Rugby, which was another unforgettable experience for the Blitzbok duo.
‘I had never been to such a big game before and the vibe was amazing,’ says Kok. ‘I told Seabelo I definitely want to be part of the Springbok squad that goes to the 2019 World Cup in Japan, although my focus for now is on the 2016 Olympics.’
Saru recently signalled its intention to take the best possible Blitzboks team to the Olympics next August when announcing a 34-man training squad that included nine Springboks. Hougaard and Ryan Kankowski have signed full-time sevens contracts for the 2015-16 season, while Damian de Allende, Bryan Habana, Mvovo, Juan de Jongh, Hendricks, Whiteley and Mohoje will be released by their Super Rugby franchises for certain tournaments. Throw Jaco Kriel and Kwagga Smith into the sevens mix and you have some serious competition for places, as only 12 players will go to Rio.
‘The introduction of those 15s guys will force us sevens specialists to lift our game,’ says Kok. ‘But we have always had a competitive attitude within the squad. We push each other as hard as we can, and we know that if one guy gets injured or loses form, someone else can slot straight in. I may have won this World Rugby award, but I know I’ll have to keep working hard and performing on the field to keep my place in the team.
‘No one will get the jersey this season without working for it,’ he adds. ‘The team has set a standard and if you don’t reach that standard you won’t go to the Olympics.’
History shows that it’s not easy for 15s specialists to make a successful transition to sevens, which requires a higher level of fitness and conditioning (players tend to lose weight). In 2006, Australia called up Wallabies Chris Latham, Matt Giteau, Lote Tuqiri and Scott Fava for the Commonwealth Games in a bid to win the gold medal, but ended up finishing fourth, with Latham struggling to cope with the pace and intensity of sevens.
That’s why Blitzboks coach Neil Powell wants the 15s players in his squad who have never played sevens before, or haven’t done so in a while, to take part in four tournaments during the 2015-16 World Series.
Kok says it’s the extra space on the field in sevens that makes it so different to 15s.
‘It requires a lot of energy to cover that space, so you have to be very fit and well conditioned. You have to train like you play, and adopt the mindset that you never stop working. However, I don’t think these 15s guys will have a problem slotting into our sevens system – they’re all quality players – and we will work hard to get them up to speed as quickly as possible. It’s going to be an exciting season.’
*Kok had knee surgery after the Dubai Sevens last December but is set to recover in time for the Olympics
– This article first appeared in the January-February 2016 issue of SA Rugby magazine