One of the powers on the sevens circuit and soon-to-be Sevens World Cup hosts, we dig deep into the South African side’s DNA
The story of the Blitzboks can serve as something of an allegory for the sport of sevens in many ways. Held together by second-hand string for so long, a more professionalised approach was not only refreshing but metamorphic.
Today, the South Africa men’s set-up is considered amongst the elite. Perennial series challengers. Tougher than the Castle of Zafra to break through and always looking for kick options in attack. But perhaps more importantly than all of that, they have a vibrant, unique identity all of their own.
Now that’s not to say things come easily to them. Their form has dipped in and out, particularly in the second half of this season, and they face many of the same struggles short-sided set-ups experience when it comes to budget battles, talent identification and retention.
However, if you look at just one particularly fruitful run, between 2013 and 2016 they were runners-up in the World Series four times, won it back-to-back in 2017 and 2018, and finished second again in 2020. They won the 2014 Commonwealth Games Sevens, their victory in the final the only time New Zealand men have lost a match in the competition to date.
Since the end of 2012 to today, the Blitzboks men have won 25 series legs (Covid-truncated seasons and missing opponents accounted for, of course).
This year, with one leg left to go, in LA in late August, they sit top of the Sevens Series standings. And they have the Commonwealth Games to contest, before hosting the Sevens World Cup in Cape Town in September.
There are suggestions that the Blitzboks project doesn’t have the same status it enjoyed within the South African union even a few years ago. But if everything goes well over the next few months, it could be an historic year for the side. One teed up all those years ago.
This is the story of how things turned around…
The Blitzboks journey
“Back in the day, you’d get together the week before a tournament, you trained, and then you jumped on a plane and went to the tournament,” explains Paul Treu, who took over from the late Chester Williams as the Blitzboks coach in 2004. He’d stopped playing for the side two years before, following injury. According to one contact we spoke to about the Blitzboks’ journey, Treu is “a details genius” when it comes to coaching.
Treu goes on of the early days: “The Hong Kong tournament was the biggest one and maybe Melrose, but it was all individual tournaments. And when the Series started, teams pretty much carried on in the same way. Under Chester, with players at their unions or franchises, you’d train on a Monday, fly back, then get together the week before a tournament and fly out. And when I took over it was pretty much the same kind of routine.
“Then we got to the stage where we realised we couldn’t compete with the big teams, like Fiji, like New Zealand, like England, who were really strong at the time. And the tipping point came when England beat us three games in a row by (accumulatively) what I think was over 100 points. We could only score two tries. After that everything changed.”
The team needed a full-time training base. So Treu and a colleague made a point of meeting union sponsor Sasol, to outline an ambitious vision for the programme. The profile of sevens needed to grow in South Africa. Games had to be shown on SuperSport, not just highlights from tournament leg victories.
Of course, by the time marketing kicked in and there was a cameraman and/or photographer always with the side, Treu says, the profile was outstripping the team’s on-field capability.
When SuperSport took on the rights, the decision was taken to move things into the Stellenbosch Academy of Sport. This was the beginning, with full-time sevens. It was new, with some uncertainty, and the way Treu tells it, there was an ultimatum to players: either you’re in or you’re out.
Third in the series in 2006. Second in 2008. Champions the next year. You could see the steady climb. And yet according to Treu, for the Commonwealth Games in Delhi in 2010, South Africa could only finalise their squad a week before the event kicked off because they were still scratching and clawing to get players released from unions.
Of that time, Treu says: “The unions took the best players, and it was the players that they either didn’t use, or it was the academy players that the unions wanted to give exposure at an international level. To work on their development and skill level, and then they come back to the union (for 15s).”
Has that totally changed? Not really, and according to Marius Schoeman, the Blitzboks’ high performance manager today, part of what makes this side unique is how they identify talent.
Having played in Treu’s side until 2010, he and Neil Powell powered a freshly-set up academy system in Stellenbosch, before Treu moved on in 2013 and Powell took over. Moulding sevens stars has been their lives for the last decade.
“We created our own feeder system,” Schoeman begins. “Many sides have the same challenge and that’s obviously player availability. So we started the academy and 2011 was our first scouting year, and then we got our first players in. Our main aim was consistency back then, because some years a team will do well and then the next they don’t have any players.
“So we would bring players into the academy, playing some lower-tier events, just prepping players for the circuit.”
Schoeman says he identified some “grey areas” when his playing time came to an end, but laughs that his initial pitch was “not welcomed with open arms!”
“But I went to the current CEO, Jurie Roux, and the ex-coach, World Cup winner Jake White, and asked: ‘Why can this product not work?’ Because you can think of all of the reasons it can work, but I went the other way – I sat with Andy Marinos as well, who was a great supporter of sevens. From the other side of the fence, there were people who saw this as a threat.
“But we just kept on going. And back in 2011, they told me you can have six contracts. It was really small – junior, junior contracts. Neil was still playing and would come in between tournaments, but I told him we shouldn’t focus on the number one junior player in the country in their position, because all the top clubs and unions will go out for the number one and number two players in each position. You’ll never get them because of the money.
“I actually went for the third, fourth, fifth choice in certain positions. And I took into account the school they come from, the town they come from. Because a lot of the boys will be your number one in a position and he comes from the best school in the country, so he would have had all the resources needed, like gym, nutrition, coaching. So he’s close to his ceiling.
“Whereas Cheslin Kolbe, he was at a really small school. Werner Kok, Kwagga Smith, Justin Geduld – not one of them went to the biggest schools in the country. So not one of them played for our U18 national side. They played provincial but weren’t on the national list. So I was focusing on guys like that, or Seabelo Senatla years later.
“We didn’t focus on the best 18-year-old but the guy lower down. Some of them just have a bigger hunger to succeed and from there every year we just keep on recruiting, bringing the players in for some academy tournaments, and making sure the guys play in at least six tournaments a year.
“A lot of countries see sevens as a development tool and we really wanted to change that. One of our sayings is ‘Pioneers of Greatness’, so we wanted guys to start up things. It worked well for us. Covid had a massive knock for everyone, and we couldn’t recruit for the last few seasons due to money. You saw a little effect, with a few hiccups in the last few tournaments but I’m sure things will be rectified.”
What helps all of this work, Schoeman says, is that players have to fit into the culture. He’s let athletes go if they’ve been seen as destructive to the project. One slogan used is “system first”.
For Schoeman that means “no sideshows” and he talks a lot about humility and respect, keeping feet on the ground. But by the nature of their recruitment process, many of the talents they unearth have these at their core anyway – allied with desire. And while they say they do not see colour when they recruit, the team are proud of their diverse make-up that they feel reflects a modern South Africa.
But they only take in a few talents a season and the art according to Schoeman is “finding the potential potential. You have to see that this guy has a 40% ceiling he can still grow. It’s really IDing the player who can surpass their level”.
He gives the example of Kurt-Lee Arendse, saying that if you knew how much they’d contracted him for three years ago you’d laugh. No one wanted him. He came to the sevens system and he expressed himself, and enjoyed a high volume of one-on-one tuition.
The Bulls contacted the sevens system looking for another player to cover full-back and wing, and the Pretoria set-up were told no, take a punt on Arendse. He went on to be a URC regular, on the cusp of the Springboks.
Could someone like Seabelo Senatla have become a household name had he been given a shot in 15s earlier? At times he was unplayable in sevens.
Blitzboks standing out
“I struggle with the whole development tool thing to be honest,” says former Blitzboks captain Kyle Brown, now working in risk management with Forbes Price. “I think it’s its own sport and if you’re going to come and play sevens you need to devote time and energy to it.
“That came about when I joined in 2008, we had the 2008-09 season and a good couple of guys. We had a phenomenal season. We had a really cool thing going and a nice bunch of guys. And at the end of it four or five of them left. I was like ‘What the hell just happened here?’
“I wasn’t particularly sought after, after school. I didn’t have people lining up to give me contracts and this was my one shot, so that’s why I felt incredibly indebted to sevens rugby, to Paul (Treu) for the opportunity and then I want to make somewhere a home. With these guys leaving, I saw they were just using sevens as a stepping stone and that goes along with the development tool narrative.
“Certain teams have decided to do that (still). Yeah, and they can, but that’s not what we wanted from South Africa. You spoke to Paul, he was always speaking about world domination. He wanted to be dominant for multiple years in a row. And you don’t get that by following, say, the Welsh set-up of sevens as development.
“I know Luke Treharne fairly well and I’d hate to be in his position where every tour you’d have like eight new players in the set-up. And you see when they hold the team together for a while they do some incredible things, they’ve got great players.”
For Brown, rugby is on something of a precipice and if there is any potential for the sport to grow further, it needs collective buy-in. As he says: “If England can’t fund the sevens set-up, it’s a bit of a slap in the face of sevens.” Look at where sevens is in so many unions’ pecking orders. But look at the potential for sevens to grow the women’s game, he adds.
But it is clear that a feeling of uniting a group to put a thumb in the eye of doubters has helped bond the Blitzboks over the years.
As Brown says: “There was this rogue bunch of throwaway players. And that’s where I would say the basis of the culture came from. People were there to prove themselves. You know, they want to prove to the world. These were all tossaways. I didn’t have anything.
“Frankie Horne was playing for Boland and told he’d never play for the Springbok sevens. A couple of other players had semi shots at lower provinces, but it was not quite the right opportunity or they just weren’t big enough. There was a whole load of s***, like everybody was tossed away at some point, and they found this sort of orphanage. It turned out to be pretty cool and we did some really, really cool things!”
The retired veteran explains that the willingness to evolve was a big part of recent successes. He starts off by saying that “without Paul Treu, Springboks sevens doesn’t exist”. He was working with an innovator every day and his role was very clear. Then, he says, Powell took over and brought an incredible man-management ability with him.
Over the following years, Powell kept adding more technical elements, becoming “an incredible coach”. So it’s no surprise that he will soon take over as director of rugby at the Sharks, overseeing the United Rugby Championship and Champions Cup outfit, as well as the Currie Cup arm – a huge job that shows how highly rated his management is.
But Brown also uses Horne as an example of a player who transformed his game to keep pace with trends in sevens, going from a crash-em and bash-em style player to a distributor who could pull out an offload. He lauds Cecil Afrika as a true great, a player he says wasn’t the fastest or most physically gifted but could tear you apart because he saw gaps and half-chances well before anyone else could.
At their best, the whole set-up has taken leaps forward and, with gritty players who have never been handed anything on a silver platter, graft would be a given. So a few years back when they identified teams were coming hard at them with sweepers joining the line or pulling off to one side, it stood to reason that from a scrum on the far right they would kick behind into the deep left and let Senatla win a foot race.
Today, you find ways to isolate individuals against one of the Davids, Selvyn or Angelo. One is a visionary when it comes to putting boot to ball and the other loves haring onto it. Then aim your forwards at hammering breakdowns and nicking ball. Go to the last whistle.
What they need now is to rediscover consistency.
With Powell set to leave we could be at another crossroads for the Blitzboks. What do the union want from them and what do they mean to the nation? Huge events are here regardless. Realise potential and they could produce moments of rugby history. Hell, they could help revitalise a sport. Again.
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