SA Sevens high performance manager Marius Schoeman talks to SIMON BORCHARDT about his scouting process, developing players within one system and creating healthy competition for Blitzboks places.
You and Neil Powell came up with the idea of establishing an SA Sevens Academy while you were still playing for the Blitzboks. How did you make it a reality?
Neil and I were discussing the inconsistency of the Springbok Sevens team over a coffee in mid-2010. We would reach the final of a tournament and then finish fifth or sixth in the next tournament, before getting to a semi-final or final again. We agreed we needed to create a feeder system for the team, because back then we were borrowing players from provincial unions, who would spend a week with us before returning to their unions. It was very disruptive for us senior players. We believed the solution to that problem was a sevens academy. We chatted to coaches and administrators – like Jake White and Jurie Roux, who was still at Maties then – to find out if they thought it could work. In the end, we only asked one question: Why wouldn’t it work? Neil and I drew up a five-year plan that targeted the 2016 Olympics and presented it to then SA Rugby CEO Johan Prinsloo, who thought it was a good idea. I retired from rugby at the end of that season because of injury, while Neil continued playing, so I took our plan further by meeting with Andy Marinos [SA Rugby’s commercial marketing general manager] and Jurie [by then SA Rugby CEO]. They also thought it was a good idea and gave it the go-ahead.
How did you source the first group of players for the academy?
SA Rugby gave me enough money to contract six players on entry-level salaries. So I went to Craven Week by myself in 2011 and focused on players who were rated third or fourth in their positions, because everyone was fighting to sign those rated the best. Some of the selectors laughed when I said, “Kwagga Smith is a machine at No 6.” They thought he was too small, so I said, “I’ll take him.” I also signed Cheslin Kolbe and Justin Geduld. I discovered Werner Kok at the Konka Sevens, a provincial schools tournament, as well as WJ Strydom and a boy from Zimbabwe, Preston Bryant. Only Preston didn’t go on to play for the Blitzboks.
What was the first year of the academy like for you?
It was tough, because Neil was still playing, so I was on my own. He then retired at the end of the 2010-11 season and joined the academy as a coach, which made my job much easier. When Neil became Blitzboks coach, we adopted one system for all our teams, because we shared the same vision.
How has your scouting process evolved since 2011?
We have compiled our own scouting manual, which is position specific. We have a profile for every position in sevens – loosehead, hooker, tighthead, sweeper, flyhalf, centre and wing – that ties in with our game plan. So I know exactly what Neil requires from a loosehead, for example, and can see whether a player is suitable for our system or not. I still go out to tournaments to scout for players, starting with the Wildeklawer festival. I enjoy scouting and believe it is one of my strengths.
Are you able to keep players from the SA U18 Sevens team in the sevens system after they leave school?
Yes, we are. The SA U18 Sevens team won gold at the Junior Commonwealth Games in 2015. We’ve still got four of those players in our system – Stedman Gans, Mfundo Ndhlovu, Heino Bezuidenhout and JC Pretorius – and three of them were at the recent Hong Kong Sevens. Only JC missed out, because of injury.
When do you start working with schoolboys?
We start developing them while they are at school, rather than waiting until they have left school. We want to expose them to sevens from an earlier age. We have a group of 30-35 players at U16 level and then that pool becomes smaller at U17 level. We had an U17 camp last year, during which they played a match against Argentina. They also took part in an African tournament in Namibia earlier this year. In July, they will be at the African Youth Games and if they win that they will go to the Junior Olympics at the end of the year.
How do you ensure a smooth transition for players from the SA U18 Sevens to the SA Academy?
The U18 side has exactly the same game plan and calls as the SA Academy team and the Blitzboks. That’s why Muller du Plessis, Angelo Davids and Henk Cilliers were able to matriculate at the end of last year and go straight into the SA Academy team for a tournament in South America in early-January. They also trained with the senior players once a week while they were writing their matric exams.
Why do you also consider older players for the academy?
There’s no age restriction at the academy, because it’s all about giving guys an opportunity. Ruhan Nel and Dylan Sage were both out of the U21 age-group system when they joined the academy. They had played in the Varsity Cup and then been forgotten about. We’re trying to develop players for South African rugby and not just the Blitzboks. Guys like Hacjivah Dayimani, Damian Willemse and Manie Libbok were part of our sevens system and have gone on to play Super Rugby. Maybe they can be part of our sevens system again one day.
How important is the academy in terms of creating competition for places in the Blitzboks team?
That was one of the big reasons for starting the academy. Senior players can get complacent if there aren’t other players pushing for their position. After the SA Academy team did so well at the Hong Kong Sevens [playing as the Blitzboks] and the Blitzboks [playing as Team SA] finished fourth at the Commonwealth Games, six youngsters were selected for the Blitzboks squad for the Singapore Sevens and some senior players were left behind for the first time.
The SA Academy team, playing as the Blitzboks, narrowly lost to Fiji in the Hong Kong Sevens semi-finals before beating New Zealand to finish third. Did you honestly expect them to do so well?
No one really gave us a chance of winning the tournament. In fact, most people expected us to fail. But I knew the players were good enough to compete and reach the final, because I had been working with them since U16 level. It was a massive opportunity for the players and I emphasised that to them during our preparation. To their credit, they stepped up and showed they can compete at that level. A couple of senior players are coming to the end of their careers and may not make it to the next Olympics, so it’s good to know there are youngsters who will be ready to take their place when the time comes.
How important is it for the SA Academy team to play tournaments?
It’s very important. Players can train as much as they want, but the only way to gain experience is to play tournaments. The SA Academy team used to only play three tournaments a season, but now play six to eight, and we would like to push that number up to 12. We play against international teams like Ireland, Chile, Uruguay, Germany, Brazil, Russia and Spain, who haven’t qualified for the World Rugby Sevens Series, as well as against academy teams from other countries. The quality of the opposition is good and you could see from the boys’ performance at the Hong Kong Sevens that they are used to playing at a high level. They also benefit from training with the Blitzboks. We want them to see the standards being set by the senior players and feel part of one big system.
Which SA Academy players who have not yet been capped by the Blitzboks are you most excited about?
JC Pretorius and Impi Visser are really special. Unfortunately they both got injured during the tournament in South America in early-January. JC is another Kwagga Smith. They both went to the same school [HTS Middelburg] and play the same position in fifteens [flank] and sevens [hooker]. Impi played inside centre for Tuks in the Varsity Cup. He is doing the final year of his engineering degree, so he’s a clever boy, too.
– This article first appeared in the June 2018 issue of SA Rugby magazine.