• From the mag: The Blitzboks’ undiminished dream

    The Blitzboks will realign their goals for the new season and the Olympics, writes CRAIG LEWIS in the latest SA Rugby magazine.

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    When SA Rugby magazine caught up with Blitzboks coach Neil Powell in early July, it was impossible to not wonder ‘what if?’

    Sure, it’s a sentiment ill-suited to these uncertain times but it was meant to be the month the Springbok Sevens jetted off to the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, with the men’s sevens competition set to take place over three days at the end of July.

    The Games have been pushed back a year, leaving some of the best-laid plans needing to be comprehensively revised. And yet change is the only certainty in a world rocked by the pandemic. In a sporting context, competitions far and wide have been restructured and reconsidered and it’s no different in the sevens scene.

    The 2019-20 season was eventually called off after six tournaments, with New Zealand crowned champs because they were leading the standings. The reset button has been pushed on Olympic preparations.

    At the helm of the Blitzboks, Powell has been through plenty of trials and tribulations in the high-pressure environment of sevens rugby but, by his very nature, he isn’t a coach inclined to waste time looking back or indeed wondering ‘what if’.

    ‘From a personal perspective, there have still been positives,’ he says with a smile when asked how he has been coping in lockdown. After all, Powell has previously been far more accustomed to regularly jetting off to various venues on the World Rugby Sevens Series roster, trading one hotel room for another.

    ‘I won’t lie, I have enjoyed the time at home and with my family. It’s not something you experience often when you’re in season, spending a couple of weeks at home, before then leaving again for another tournament.’

    From a rugby perspective, though, Powell admits a lot of planning went into the 2019-20 season, all with the ultimate aim of going for Olympic gold.

    Those plans have now undergone a shake-up, but the end goal remains the same.

    ‘Generally, everything you’re doing in an Olympic year is designed towards that event,’ Powell says. ‘We had plans to expose certain players in the 2019-20 series to give them a chance to put up their hands and see how hungry they were to add value. We knew the team would be changed quite often to test different combinations, and we aimed to utilise the first six tournaments to do that.

    ‘And then we hoped to use the last four tournaments, especially Hong Kong and Singapore – where there are very similar conditions and climate to Japan – as a dress rehearsal for the Olympics. We even thought about really targeting Hong Kong – where we haven’t won before – to view it as a must-win scenario to simulate the pressure we were going to experience at the Olympics.’

    As the old saying goes, if you fail to prepare, prepare to fail, and Powell and his management team are nothing if not meticulous when it comes to preparation.

    ‘We felt we had a great plan building to the Olympics, with a strong squad of talented players who’d gained some experience,’ Powell says. ‘And then we had guys from fifteens like Seabelo Senatla, Ruhan Nel, Dylan Sage and Rosko Specman also adding value.

    ‘We did a massive amount of work behind the scenes to get that plan as close to perfect as possible. Team manager Ashley Evert and I had gone over to Japan last year to look at the conditions and see what the climate was like, and where we could stay. We even went to Kagoshima where the Boks had spent time in camp and were looking at going there for our preparation for the Olympics.

    ‘We’d planned really well for Olympics 2020 and had chatted to some fifteens players a long time ago about whether they’d be keen to be involved, and we’d earmarked them to return to the sevens set-up for the Games. There’s always a lot of negotiation that goes into getting players available and to have a compromise with how players are conditioned while away from the sevens system.

    ‘Another part of our plan was to rest players from certain tournaments so that we didn’t get to July and have the guys battling with fatigue, while it was also about exposing a few new players to start building to the Olympics and beyond.

    ‘Then, even a guy like Cheslin Kolbe. I’d told him at his wedding three years before the Olympics that we’d love to have him involved,’ Powell adds, ‘but now that could be different, with the British & Irish Lions tour taking place at the same time as the Olympics. It was a detailed plan, and so obviously it was really disappointing from that perspective when the Olympics were postponed.’

    However, Powell also adopts a philosophical approach. He knows that not everything had gone exactly according to plan over the first half of the 2019-20 season, and there is an opportunity to refresh and refine certain aspects.

    ‘Like I’ve said to the players, life is not always a fairytale and doesn’t always happen as you’ve imagine it … what it has done is given us a second chance to try to perfect that Olympic preparation. Obviously we made some mistakes in the first six tournaments of the season but it’s something we can now look to fix.’

    With SA Rugby players and staff having waited patiently for a return to training during a prolonged period of lockdown, the Blitzboks targeted August as a month when they would restart preparations in earnest.

    After such an extended period without access to the usual gym equipment, Powell says strength training is likely to be just as brutal as the conditioning when it comes to getting players literally back up to speed.

    ‘I don’t think it will be difficult to get them to refocus,’ Powell says with a wry chuckle. ‘I saw Shakes [Siviwe Soyizwapi] recently, and he said everyone was so keen to get back on to the field, whereas I joked that I was quite happy with my sabbatical. But on a serious note, it really won’t be a problem to motivate them with the Olympics to refocus on.’

    The 2020-21 season looms on the horizon to fine-tune a new-look squad that will no longer be able to call on the services of retired veteran Cecil Afrika, while another stalwart in Werner Kok is committing to the Sharks. The clash between the Olympic dates and the British & Irish Lions tour will also likely capture the attentions of Kolbe and Kwagga Smith.

    Yet, as ever, Powell has his sights set on the bigger picture, and remains optimistic about the prolific talent of a youthful group of players who will be brimming with desire to make up for lost time.

    ‘New guys have to come through now. There are players who have shown real potential and I’m so excited to see more, though. Kurt-Lee Arendse has shown glimpses of what he’s capable of and I think he’s going to be brilliant for us. He’s slowly building confidence and getting to know his roles and responsibilities.

    ‘Angelo Davids has also shown his capabilities but needs more opportunities to prove himself. Then there’s Stedman Gans, Impi Visser and JC Pretorius who can continue to step up, and quite a few youngsters coming through. Ronald Brown is another exciting guy waiting for a chance, while Tiaan Pretorius, who was in school last year at Paul Roos and a cousin of Kwagga, is someone to watch post-Olympics.

    ‘So I’m excited, it’s going to be a big year, with the Olympic carrot dangling at the end of the next season.’

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

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    Craig Lewis