Seabelo Senatla has excelled on the wing for Western Province in this year’s Currie Cup, but sevens and next year’s Olympic Games remain his priority. LOUIS DE VILLIERS reports.
Paul Treu, then Springbok Sevens coach, hadn’t yet watched all the video clips of young Free State wing Seabelo Senatla before he knew he had struck gold.
‘I suppose the Cheetahs still kick themselves, but they probably thought Seabelo wasn’t ready for senior rugby,’ says Treu. ‘But in all the games I watched him play for their U19 team, I saw a game-breaking force, a special talent. Other similar sevens players were Robert Ebersohn, Rayno Benjamin, Gio Aplon and Warren Whiteley.
‘I went to Seabelo’s house in Virginia. His dad William is a policeman and his mom Patricia a teacher, and you can see he is their product. He is intelligent, gentlemanly and disciplined. He told me he dreamed of going to the Olympics with the Springbok Sevens team. He can have any future he wants in rugby if he takes good care of himself.’
There is little doubt the Blitzboks and Western Province flyer will do just that. But Rio 2016 and the debut of sevens as an Olympic code is what makes Senatla’s eyes sparkle most at the moment.
‘Even as a child, when I ran the 100m, the Olympics were my biggest dream. I can’t wait to get out there to represent my country,’ he says.
It must have rankled, then, missing the Springboks’ final World Cup squad?
‘Not really,’ he says. ‘I didn’t think my chances of making it were that high. When I got drafted into the Bok squad, I was very young. I used my chance to check out the scene, but in reality I was never very hopeful of going to the World Cup. But I’ve cleared my mind of the disappointment. It’s not the end. I’m young. I have a lot of time and a lot of drive on my side.’
It’s that drive that converted the sprinter, who has a personal best of 10.6sec for the 100m, into a rugby player. Soccer was his first love, with athletics a close second. As a pupil at Riebeeckstad High School in Welkom, Senatla struggled to make the rugby team and was on the verge of quitting the sport. But then he cracked the nod as a reserve scrumhalf for the school’s touring squad in 2009. Later that year he represented the Griffons at the U16 Grant Khomo Week before heading off to the U18 Academy Week the following year.
In the process Senatla played everywhere in the backline before the penny dropped that his pace belonged on the wing.
Although rugby came to steal his heart, Senatla remains an avid follower of track and field, and football, with Kaizer Chiefs being the team he supports locally. Internationally? He breaks a small piece of my Barcelona heart by admitting to following Real Madrid, then redeems himself by qualifying: ‘Actually, it’s Cristiano Ronaldo I follow. When he was with Manchester United, I supported them. I love that guy. His talent and his dedication … he’s the ultimate professional.’
Senatla moved to Bloemfontein in 2012 and represented the CUT Ixias in the Varsity Shield competition before playing a few matches for the Free State U19 and U21 outfits.
He went to France in 2013 as a wing with the SA U20 team, where he scored seven tries in five matches.
By now he had caught Treu’s eye and the rest of us soon took notice as Senatla made his impact on the World Sevens circuit.
For a boy from the Northern Free State, the wide world out there was a revelation and a joy.
‘It’s difficult for me to explain how much it meant to me to start seeing the world. Even when I went to Bloemfontein for the first time I was, like, wow! Bloemfontein, then Cape Town after that.
‘I am so grateful and feel so blessed to have started playing on the sevens circuit. It has opened my eyes. Of all the foreign cities, I like Glasgow and Edinburgh the most. Probably because I find Scottish history very interesting.’
The small matter of a Commonwealth Games gold medal clinched in Glasgow with the Blitzboks established Senatla in the national rugby consciousness and earmarked him as the logical successor to Bryan Habana.
Along with Blitzboks teammate Werner Kok, Senatla is one of three nominees for World Rugby Sevens Player of the Year, his try-scoring feats on the circuit making his claims impossible to ignore.
‘It went well enough, but we struggled towards the end. I wasn’t disappointed in myself, but I don’t deserve so much credit for the tries. It’s just the way we play. My teammates put me in space and if I score, it only means they did their job.’
Senatla isn’t keen to blow his own trumpet, but the roar around Newlands whenever he gets involved in play, tells you there are many who will do it for this brilliant young player.
– This article first appeared in the November 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine