Blitzboks superstar Seabelo Senatla wants to put himself in contention for Springbok selection, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
Seabelo Senatla fondly regards the Springbok Sevens set-up as his ‘home’. It’s where he feels confident and comfortable, while a close-knit culture of brotherhood has added to a happy ‘family’ environment.
However, Senatla is also fully aware that to achieve his ultimate dream – of becoming a Springbok in the 15-man game – he will need to sacrifice some of his ‘home comforts’.
Part of this process will once again see Senatla return to the Stormers for Super Rugby duty after featuring in the first four tournaments of the 2017-18 World Rugby Sevens Series, with the talented 24-year-old in the midst of what he describes as ‘phase two’ of his career. This involves a predominant focus on fifteens rugby, complemented by some sevens exposure, that is still key to his progression as a player.
‘I really feel like sevens helps to develop my strengths in both forms of the game and keeps my skills sharp,’ he tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘I really don’t want to completely leave sevens just yet, it’s given me so much, but I also know that at this stage in my career I need to start dedicating the bulk of my time to fifteens if I want to become a Springbok.’
It’s a prospect that continues to entice an expectant rugby public that has unequivocally fallen in love with the dreadlocked speedster, who has set the sevens scene alight with unfailing regularity. At the Cape Town Sevens in December, Senatla became the fastest player in sevens history to score 200 tries (reaching the mark in just 35 tournaments), with a vociferous home crowd raising their decibel levels to fever pitch almost every time he touched the ball. It’s this sort of public adulation that still often surprises the affable youngster, who hails from humble beginnings where a ‘famed’ career as a professional sportsman appeared a far cry from reality.
However, even from his childhood days, growing up in the Free State township of Thabong, Senatla appeared born to run.
As the story goes, he could often be found sprinting around the dusty streets, while constantly keeping his family on their toes to keep up with him. As he grew older, his love for running and his eye-catching speed saw him gravitate towards athletics, with the talented schoolboy excelling in the 100 and 200m, while proving to also be a talented cricketer and footballer.
During those early school days, rugby was more of a social activity for Senatla, although he did take an immediate liking to the sport and would go on to represent the Griffons at the U16 Grant Khomo Week, U18 Academy Week and at U19 level.
A real future in rugby only came into sharp focus when Senatla took a gap year after matric and joined the Harmony Sports Academy in Virginia, where he came under the tutelage of coach Jacques Juries, who immediately recognised a rare talent. After his stint at the academy, Senatla moved to Bloemfontein to begin a Bcom degree. He played for CUT Ixias in the 2012 Varsity Shield, before going on to represent the Free State Cheetahs at U19 and U21 levels.
It was around this time that Juries alerted then Blitzboks coach Paul Treu to the raw potential of a young Senatla.
‘He was contracted to the Free State U21 squad at the time,’ Treu recalled in an interview with SuperSport.com. ‘But when I saw the clips [sent from Juries], I knew there was potential in him. I thought it was funny the Cheetahs weren’t more interested in him at the time, but I decided to sign him up. The most difficult thing was that I needed to convince his parents, as he had just started university. I picked Seabelo up and we drove to Welkom to chat to his folks, and I had to promise them he would give it his all.’
For Senatla, it was a new adventure that fuelled his competitive spirit, while harnessing his natural talents.
‘I really didn’t know much about sevens to begin with and I made a lot of mistakes, but it was something I was still keen to try,’ he recalls. ‘One thing I really like [about sevens], is that it helps develop a whole range of skills. It’s a very uncompromising game and so you have to learn quickly.’
That process was expedited as Senatla soaked up knowledge from the likes of Branco du Preez, Cecil Afrika and Werner Kok. By 2013, the fleet-footed speedster was featuring prominently in the Sevens Series, while he also played at that year’s Sevens World Cup and World Games. During the 2013-14 series, Senatla scored 29 tries. In the next season he managed a series-leading tally of 47.
This almost paled in comparison to a peerless 2015-16 season that saw Senatla rack up a whopping 66 tries in 10 tournaments, which contributed to his recognition as the World Rugby Sevens Player of the Year. It was an accolade that had been previously collected by Afrika and Kok, who Senatla says served as inspirational figures.
‘I had always looked up to Cecil, who was at the [sevens] academy. We used to watch him play and go crazy. So to play with him and someone like Branco was surreal. I used to joke with them that they were like a car, and I was the trailer always following behind them. So I tried to learn as much as possible from them. The year before I received the World Rugby award, it had gone to Werner. I always saw just how much he trained and that set an example of how hard I needed to work if I wanted to achieve something similar.’
During those formative years, Senatla’s primary focus was understandably centred on mastering the artistry of sevens and going on to achieve a dream of playing at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Although he suffered an injury in the quarter-finals, a memorable moment saw replacement player Francois Hougaard give up his bronze medal for Senatla, who he believed was more deserving of it.
The conclusion of the Blitzboks’ Olympic campaign represented a career-defining shift for Senatla, who began ‘stage two’ of a long-term plan that aims to place a greater emphasis on fifteens rugby.
‘It’s all about trying to become a more holistic player and that’s what I’m gunning towards,’ he explains. ‘During the early stage of my career, my focus was mostly on sevens, while supplementing it with fifteens rugby, but it is the other way around now.’
As it is, Senatla finalised a three-year tripartite contract with Western Province and SA Rugby in 2016, while beginning to bank meaningful experience in Super Rugby and the Currie Cup. However, Senatla insists that he is not ready to throw in the sevens towel just yet.
‘Sevens will always be my home, because it’s where I started. It’s a big portion of who I am as a player and I don’t think I’ll ever lose that touch, but it’s always about sharpening up various aspects of my game. Obviously I have dreams and ambitions of being a fifteens Bok, and that’s the ultimate goal. I will continue to play fifteens and, at a later stage, perhaps play that only.’
In February, Senatla will return to the Stormers for the 2018 Super Rugby season, although he retains a burning desire to feature for the Blitzboks this year at the Commonwealth Games and Sevens World Cup. After that, though, he is likely to enter the next phase of his career, which will be focused almost solely on achieving his Springbok dream.
‘Coming back from fifteens to sevens is quite a bit more difficult than going the other way,’ Senatla says. ‘I don’t think the conditioning requires that much of an adjustment and the good thing is that we have focused a lot on being a strong defensive team in the sevens set-up. Although there are a lot more collisions in fifteens, I actually really love defending. People see me as just an attack-minded player, but I really like getting stuck in on defence and trying to contest for the ball. I try to judge my performance by my all-round involvement in the game and not just by the amount of tries I score.’
And while it has appeared to take some time for Senatla to become comfortable in the 15-man game, his impact for a victorious Western Province in the 2017 Currie Cup final pointed towards an increasing confidence.
‘I think my biggest adjustment was getting used to covering space at the back,’ he reflects. ‘In sevens, you’re generally going forward all the time and there isn’t that much kicking. But in fifteens you need to be aware of players kicking into space behind you, and obviously your aerial skills need to be good when it comes to catching a high ball, because you don’t experience a lot of that in sevens. So your kicking game, aerial skills and positional awareness are all very important.’
Slowly, but surely, Senatla is moving into the decisive ‘third phase’ of his career plan. The next stop could be the Springboks.
‘I don’t want to get ahead of myself,’ he reiterates. ‘I want to bide my time to ensure that I’m ready to, hopefully, be considered for selection, but I’d really love to be in contention for the 2019 World Cup.’
– This article first appeared in the February 2018 issue of SA Rugby magazine