Nicknamed the Blitzbokke, South Africa’s rugby sevens team is one of the finest in the world. Currently ranked second behind Fiji, they will be eyeing a place on the podium at Rio 2016.
“Sevens is a lot quicker and a lot more intense [than the 15-a-side version of rugby],” says Neil Powell, the head coach of the South Africa team that will be going for gold in Rio. “Someone summed up sevens perfectly by saying it’s human chess, where you have to figure out their strategies and you have obviously a strategy to try and beat them.”
The Blitzbokke were one of the outstanding teams of the 2015/16 World Rugby Sevens Series season, finishing second behind Fiji in the 10-event competition. Victorious in the Dubai event, the South Africans took second place in Wellington, Vancouver and London, and third in Las Vegas, Hong Kong and Singapore.
One of the team’s stand-out players is Seabelo Senatla, last season’s top Sevens Series try scorer with 66 in total. The spearhead of the Blitzbokke back line, Senatla also made 72 clean breaks during the campaign, more than any other player.
Explaining the physical demands of the game, he said: “We all know that sevens is a pretty high-paced game, so you need a whole lot of strength, a whole lot of looseness, a whole lot of speed, agility.”
South Africa skipper Kyle Brown can also lay claim to an impressive stat, having made 279 World Rugby Sevens Series appearances in all, a competition record.
No easy games
In selecting his 12-man squad for Rio, Powell left out 15-a-side star and 2007 Rugby World Cup winner Bryan Habana, who played at two Sevens Series events this season with the aim of making the Olympics.
“I can tell you it wasn’t easy,” said Powell. “I could have picked three different teams and all would have been very competitive, but unfortunately‚ only 12 can go.”
The Blitzbokke have picked up the pace of their Olympic preparations in the last few weeks, organising invitational tournaments on home soil to ensure the players hit peak form in time for the pool phase at Rio 2016, where they will face a tough test against France, Australia and Spain.
“For us for the season, it was important to finish either first or second,” added Powell. “We knew that Pool C is going to be a tough pool… with four top circuit teams. Playing France first is going to be a tough one. With France, you never know what you’re going to get. If they pitch up on the day, then you’ll probably get the best team in the world.”
“Although we have a good track record against Australia this year – we’ve played them eight times, beat them six times, lost two times – nothing is a given out there. You still have to respect every single opponent you play against, even Spain, that we’re going to play in the second game of the tournament.
“It’s going to be different. One-off tournaments are different. They’re will put everything they have into every single game they will play, and you must make sure that you are 100-percent ready for those Games and that you’ve done your homework on those different opponents.”
The Spanish were the last team to book their place at the Games, beating Samoa in the deciding match of the Final Olympic Qualification Tournament held in Monaco at the end of June.
Discussing the challenge the Olympic tournament poses in terms of training and planning, South Africa’s assistant coach Alan Temple-Jones said: “It is slightly different. Yes, the preparation and the mentality is the same, but there is a long turnaround between games. I think it’s about five hours between Game 1 and 2, and only two games a day, so there is a slightly different thought process. Essentially, all the basics are the same, but we do try and work on a little bit of a longer period between our intense sessions.”
An occasion to remember
As far the players are concerned, the chance to compete in the Olympics is a dream come true, as Cheslin Kolbe, a sevens player since the age of 18, explained: “It’s not everybody that gets this opportunity to play at the Olympics. It’s something you can tell your children, that you have played at the Olympics before. That’s the highest goal in any sport that you will get. It’s something to get excited about, but you just have to remember what your goal is at the end of the day and what you want to achieve.”
“A year ago I wasn’t even sure of standing a chance,” commented team-mate Juan de Jong, who has successfully made the transition from the 15-a-side code to sevens and has booked his place in the squad for Rio. “The coach came to me and said he wants to give me a shot. From that day on I thought to myself: “Listen, if the coach backs me, I need to back myself. I need to give myself the opportunity to make this because it’s massive. It’s not only rugby players’ but a lot of athletes’ goal to go to the Olympics.”
Currently putting the finishing touches to his side’s preparations, Powell said: “We need to create an environment where they enjoy it, not fun, but enjoy coming to work and wanting to improve and be better, and not just the players on the field, but people off the field.“For us it’s good to try and create that environment. I think a medal will unite the nation like the 1995 World Cup did.”