Why Seabelo Senatla, the try-scoring machine, remains determined to be as much a household name in fifteens as he is in sevens, writes GARY LEMKE.
Everyone is faced with a sliding doors moment along life’s journey and for S Senatla it came when he was 17. ‘I wasn’t going completely off the rails, but there was the potential for things to go wrong. I was stumbling a little bit in life, I didn’t know what to do. My dad told me to, “be a man now, learn to provide”.
‘I had been going to church, but all that was driven by my parents. I needed to take change of my own life, so I started praying by myself in my room. It was quite heavy … that bed of mine knows all my crimes. But God is now my foundation in everything I do.’
Senatla grew up in Welkom, before he was handed a scholarship to the Central University of Technology in neighbouring Bloemfontein, where his rugby talents were rewarded by selection to the Cheetahs U19 and U21 squads. He has always been blessed with speed and when you combine that with raw talent and a desire to run with the ball you know you have the ingredients to create a special player.
Even as a kid the young Senatla was drawn to rugby and the more he got knocked down the more he got up. There’s a lot more steel behind that ‘traditional wing’ 1.82m, 82kg body frame, smiling eyes and engaging demeanour than one might imagine. And he scoffs at the notion that size is everything in fifteens rugby, interestingly referencing 1.77m, 100kg hooker/flanker and former Western Province teammate Deon Fourie as an example.
‘I went to a non-traditional rugby-playing school [Riebeeckstad High] and most weeks we took a hammering. Those Free State farm boys are big and when we went from barefoot rugby at U13 to wearing boots at U14 level I almost stopped playing rugby. I mean, I’d been stood on and trampled barefoot, so was dreading the same happening with boots on.
‘But I loved rugby and enjoyed playing alongside my mates. We didn’t take it too seriously, but we did have some ambition … mostly that if we took 50-0 one week – it happened often! – the team talk would be that we needed to keep the score down the next week. For me, though, it was to change the ‘0’ into ‘5’ or ’10’ by scoring tries. And it was such a great feeling to sidestep a few bigger players on the way to the tryline.’
And from those barefoot beginnings, a rugby star was born. Now 26, Senatla has been living in Cape Town – ‘the greatest city in the world’ – since 2013 and is with the Stormers and looking forward to the Currie Cup campaign with Western Province, after which he is keen to explore the sevens circuit again.
Senatla is already a sevens legend, sitting fourth overall on the number of tries scored – 224 from 203 matches – and he is a Commonwealth Games gold medallist with the Blitzboks and a bronze medallist from the 2016 Rio Olympics, where he missed the losing semi-final against Great Britain through injury. ‘There’s definitely unfinished business as far as the Olympics is concerned,’ he says.
‘I desperately want to represent South Africa at the 2020 Games in Tokyo and make amends for 2016. Not winning gold still hurts. We felt we had the best team there, were well prepared and our form was good. But we didn’t play to our potential in that semi and it’s not easy to play catch-up in sevens. It’s all over so quickly – which makes the Blitzboks comeback from 19-0 down at half-time to beat Fiji 20-19 in the Singapore final in April so incredible. You just don’t do that, and certainly not against Fiji.
‘After our Rio experience Coach Neil Powell said to me, Kwagga Smith and Justin Geduld], “Make sure you guys are still around in four years’ time so we can return and win the gold medal.” We promised we would and it’s definitely high on the agenda.’
It’s probably fair to say the try-scoring machine is feeling a little frustrated as to how things have gone making the transition from sevens to the 15-man code, where he has consistently said he harbours hopes of playing for the Springboks. ‘Obviously I still want to be a Bok, but things don’t happen overnight and over the years I haven’t had much time to rest. In fact, the rest has only come when I’ve been injured and in hindsight the latest injury [groin] was the best thing that could have happened to me.
‘It forced me to rest, to do nothing for at least a month. I started devouring books; I used to hate reading, but I love it now. I had played sevens since I was 19 and up to then I’d played fifteens. My body had never got to rest. But rest is good, and the injury made me chill and do nothing, except read. It helped me exercise the brain too.
‘I will go into Currie Cup and see what happens. The hybrid thing – mastering sevens and fifteens – is still going to happen. I’ve had a lot of injuries in the past two years and have not been able to do what I wanted to on the field.’
When pressed, Senatla opens up. That element of frustration is there. At international level not many players master sevens and fifteens. Sure, the likes of Smith and Rosko Specman are comfortable and thriving at Super Rugby level, but making the Springbok squad is a bigger step. And that’s where Senatla explains his side of what is different.
‘I love running with the ball, attacking the space not the face. I love side-stepping, sprinting and going over that tryline. In sevens one has the freedom to do that, catch and run. In fifteens I haven’t had that same opportunity, because the game is played differently. For example, I have worked extremely hard on catching the high ball, going up in the air and claiming it. That’s a big part of a wing’s role these days. But, once I’ve caught the ball, my instinct is to run, even from deep in my own half. That’s how it goes in sevens.
‘Yet in fifteens, most often it’s safety first, secure the ball and wait for players to come protect it. It’s a lot more “coached” and the freedom isn’t always there to express yourself. I can’t always play by instinct … there are game plans to adopt in pre-determined situations and places on the field, whereas in sevens it’s more instinctive. It’s a big adjustment.’
However, Senatla concedes that a coach can make or break a player. ‘I can only speak for myself, of course, but I thrive under a coach who allows me to play with freedom and expression. Coach Neil is an example. He’s a disciplinarian but the team environment is everything. He’s an excellent man manager and I often think that’s more important than being a coach. I’ve read that one of Gary Kirsten’s greatest achievements in taking India to the 2011 Cricket World Cup was he didn’t try to over-coach, but was more a manager to the players and ensured everything was right within their environment.
‘In South African fifteens, the flyhalf is largely encouraged to kick according to the game plan, but I’d love to see more running. Imagine seeing Damien Willemse and Curwin Bosch at No 10 and being given the freedom to run with the ball, as opposed to them being at fullback and running from there? And don’t get me started on Jan Serfontein, one of the most gifted players I’ve been around, but who had the flair coached out of him in South Africa.’
As for the armchair perception that sevens players are ‘softer’ than fifteens players, Senatla laughs. ‘Have you looked at Kwagga, have you tackled him or been tackled by him? Sevens is so, so tough. On a typical sevens weekend we have the captain’s run on the Friday. Then there are three matches on a Saturday and three on a Sunday. After the Saturday your body is screaming, “No more”, but the next day you go and do it all again. Three matches at 14 minutes each is 42 minutes. Then another 42 minutes the next day. On the same sized rugby field as fifteens, with so much space available. In 15s they reckon the ball is in play for an average of 35 minutes in a match. Sevens is far tougher than one might imagine.’
There are other differences in the professional sevens and fifteens player – one of them being the form of travel. ‘With the Stormers, especially on the long-haul flights, we turn left into business class when we board; no matter where we go on the World Sevens circuit and to the Olympics and Commonwealth Games, we head right into economy class. I suppose it makes sense because can you imagine Eben Etzebeth trying to fit into an economy seat, but it also highlights the financial differences between sevens and fifteens.’
But Senatla remains determined to thrive and become the hybrid player that has eluded so many others.