Blitzboks coach Neil Powell will sharpen the teeth of the Sharks’ attacking gameplan should he decide to end his long association with sevens rugby, writes DYLAN JACK.
According to Sunday newspaper Rapport, talks are at an advanced stage to have Powell become the Sharks’ next attack coach, filling the role vacated by Bath-bound David Williams.
Williams’ arrival in Durban coincided with the Sharks becoming a force on attack during the 2020 Vodacom Super Rugby season, scoring 25 tries and 213 points in seven games. His knowledge and intellectual property will be missed by the Sharks, but Powell presents an interesting solution for that gap.
The Sharks reportedly initially targeted former player and Griquas coach Scott Mathie, but have found it difficult to get him released from his contract with the Kimberley-based side. This is understandable given Mathie’s origins lie in Durban, where he was schooled and began his rugby career.
Powell’s contract as Blitzboks head coach is set to expire after the Sevens World Cup, making next year’s Cape Town-based tournament a potential swansong.
His success with the sevens team speaks for itself. After succeeding Paul Treu in 2013, Powell has built on the platform started by his predecessor, winning back-to-back Sevens Series titles between 2016 and 2018.
When the Springboks and local franchises were struggling between 2016 and 2018, it was the Blitzboks, under Powell’s tutorship, who stood out and carried the South African flag proudly. He guided the Blitzboks to a bronze medal at the Olympic Games in Rio in 2018 and was subsequently named SA Rugby Coach of the Year.
As a coach, Powell is known as an innovator. He has managed to find a way to get the best out of extremely talented, yet diminutive, sevens players, especially when facing physically superior opponents in Fiji and New Zealand.
Powell is also no stranger to fifteens, given he had a solid career as a scrumhalf with the Sharks, Vodacom Bulls, Griquas and Cheetahs. He is often seen rubbing shoulders with experienced coaches at coaching clinics in Stellenbosch, sharing ideas with the likes of England assistant coach John Mitchell.
He has had to think on his feet during the past year, when the Sevens Series was completely halted by the Covid-19 pandemic, but has managed to keep the Blitzboks together and motivated.
Powell’s unique relationship with his players has been well documented and, in an interview with SA Rugby magazine last year, academy product JC Pretorius was quick to heap praise on his work ethic and excellent man-management skills.
‘Obviously, at the Academy there’s Marius Schoeman and Paul Delport. But then you stress when you have to train with the seniors, because coach Neil is there,’ Pretorius said. ‘But when I started training with them, he was the nicest. He helps all over, he is willing to work extra hours if a player asks him for a one-on-one session.
‘We have individual reviews after every second tournament and coach would ask us to list the areas we felt we excelled in and the ones I’d like to work on. He’d then reveal his notes and we’d take it from there. But, more importantly, he is available 24/7 even if it is personal issues that we need help with.’
His relationship with his players, who describe him as something of a father figure, would help him fit into the culture that the Sharks are trying to build.
Still, Powell is a hard taskmaster, who sets incredibly high standards for the teams he coaches and is unafraid to have the ‘tough conversations’ with his players if they fail to consistently meet those standards.
Think back to when he had such a conversation with Cecil Afrika, one of the best players the Blitzboks have ever had, when it became clear that the veteran was starting to fall off the pace slightly.
‘We hope we are making the best decision to benefit the system,’ Powell told SA Rugby magazine when explaining Afrika’s retirement from sevens. ‘Sometimes we need to take the individual out of it and make the decision that will be best for the future.’
As sad as it would be to see Powell bid the sevens team farewell, where he has certainly built a legacy, it would be fitting for him to leave with one final shot at a major trophy.
With the Sharks looking to evolve their attacking gameplan, Powell is certainly an outside-the-box option, but it could prove to be a masterstroke in getting the best out of the wealth of talent in Durban.
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