Western Province wing Seabelo Senatla wants to be a Springbok but the Olympic Games remain his top priority, writes RYAN VREDE.
Seabelo Senatla is dreaming about Olympic gold. It occupies most of his thoughts, that stream of consciousness only interrupted by a Currie Cup cause in which he has already made a telling impact despite it being his rookie season at senior level.
He hot-stepped his way through the Junior World Championship in 2013, followed that up with promising cameos for the Stormers this year and then lit up Glasgow in the Commonwealth Games with the triumphant Blitzboks, finishing as the top try-scorer. Sevens has his mind and heart, at least until after the Olympic Games, when his contract expires, after which he will train his focus on his next goal – becoming a Springbok.
As a kid in Welkom, Senatla had secretly harboured ambitions of representing South Africa at the Olympics, but as a sprinter. If you’ve watched him scorch would-be defenders, you’ll understand this was no flight of fantasy. Ultimately, though, his rugby talent intervened and while he won’t be settling into the starting blocks next to Usain Bolt, his dream will be realised through the sevens team’s participation in the world’s biggest and most prestigious sporting event.
‘I’m loving playing for Western Province in the Currie Cup. It has really been a pleasure, particularly given that we are moving back to the expansive style the province used to be known for. I love running and taking on defenders,’ Senatla says. ‘But I’d be lying if I said I don’t think about the Olympics often. As a child I watched the event and had the goal of participating as a sprinter. But I probably wouldn’t have made it – man, the national sprinters are fast! So I was over the moon when it was announced that sevens would be included in the Olympics because I saw my path to the Olympics reopen. My dream is alive again and now I want to make it count if I’m there. I’m desperate to help us get that gold medal.’
The Blitzboks are serious gold medal contenders, having secured the Commonwealth title and, at times on the series circuit, looked excellent and formidable. They will retain the core of the squad that triumphed in Glasgow, adding only players who make a strong impression between now and then, as well as possibly accommodating a couple of Springboks who’ve been identified as potentially amplifying their potency.
'I was over the moon when it was announced that sevens would be included in the Olympics because I saw my path to the Olympics reopen'
The 21-year-old is almost certain to play a key role in Rio and the buildup (he is unavailable for the Stormers in the 2015 Super Rugby campaign), after which he’ll follow Cornal Hendricks’ path from sevens specialist to full-time 15-man competitor.
‘I want to be a Springbok and I’ve been inspired by Cornal in that sense. I think we’re the same in terms of not having an easy route to where we are today. But I also feel we’re better for it,’ he says. ‘I’ve made a good transition from junior international rugby to Super Rugby and Currie Cup levels. Some people exaggerate the step up. Don’t get me wrong, in Super Rugby I have had less time and space to operate than I did with the Junior Boks, but I never felt out of my depth.
‘I think my upbringing has a lot to do with how I approach big challenges like making that step up. I’m excited by the struggle, not daunted by it.’
Senatla’s path to where he finds himself now was indeed a struggle. Born in Welkom, he never made it to the Free State’s Springbok factory, Grey College. Indeed, rugby was well down his list of favourite sports, with football – ‘I thought I would go pro’ – athletics and tennis all trumping it.
Despite representing the Griffons at every age group, the game only captured his heart and imagination after school while he was at the Harmony Sports Academy. He was snapped up by the Central University of Technology and then represented Free State at U19 and U21 levels, which put him in the shop window. Then sevens invested in him. The returns have been very good to date.
‘As a young athlete I never got an easy ride. I was never the most talented in any of the sports I participated in, so I tried to make up for what I lacked in talent with hard work and determination,’ he says. ‘When I started playing junior provincial rugby I realised quickly what my strengths were and how to make a consistent impact. When I stepped up to the Junior Boks I had to adapt to greater demands, which I did, then I went on to play Super Rugby and again I feel like I coped well.
‘Sevens at the elite level is a whole new learning curve, and it was tough at first but I pushed through and now I feel like I can survive and thrive. I’ve always been an underdog and I’ve never been one to want instant gratification for my efforts.
‘When my time comes to concentrate on 15-man rugby and push for Springbok selection, that will be another challenge I’ll have to master. I ain’t scared, though,’ he adds with endearing confidence that never spills over into arrogance.
Ultimately, Western Province hope Senatla will extend his stay at the union post-Olympics (there are likely to be a number of suitors) and fill the void left by the dynamic Gio Aplon and Bryan Habana. They further hope that he, in combination with their other sevens graduates, among them Cheslin Kolbe and Juan de Jongh, will form the nucleus of a potent back division that could remedy their now chronic attacking woes.
‘It’s early days but I enjoy being part of a team with so many like-minded attacking players,’ Senatla says. ‘There’s potential for the backline to develop into a really, really good one, especially with Cheslin and Juan around and some exciting youngsters coming through. I just want to be part of a team that is free to express itself on attack and that’s the philosophy at Western Province. Hopefully I can contribute to success in the Currie Cup and then help take the union back to the top in Super Rugby.’
But first, there’s the small matter of Olympic gold.
– This article first appeared in the October 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine