Rugby

How Cinderellas of sevens SA got to the ball - and won it

22 April 2018 - 00:00 By CRAIG RAY

Eight years ago, two South African sevens rugby veterans - Neil Powell and Marius Schoeman - were nearing the end of their playing careers and had a vision to make the Blitzboks the best team on the planet.
To do that they knew the sport had to be taken seriously, that players would have to earn a living and that they would have to choose to be full-time sevens players.
Nearly a decade on, the South African sevens programme, based at the Stellenbosch Academy of Sport, is the envy of every team on the world circuit.
It's been so successful that the Blitzboks sent a "second" team to the Hong Kong leg of the World Sevens Series two weeks ago and finished third to retain South Africa's lead at the top of the overall standings after seven of the 10 rounds.
"In 2010 Neil and I asked each other, what was the thing that we needed most to become a sevens power? The answer was simply 'consistency'," Schoeman says.
"And to achieve that we needed an academy, which would give us a conveyor belt of players. That was where the idea began and we then spent eight months planning it."
Their proposal was accepted by SA Rugby and they were given a budget to sign six players at the end of 2011.
Among the six were Kwagga Smith, Cheslin Kolbe, Justin Geduld and Werner Kok. They were recruited from Craven Week where none had made the SA Schools team.
"I knew what I was looking for. Speed is essential but attitude and work ethic got a massive tick.
"That attitude can't be coached. The rest can. Werner Kok couldn't pass off his left hand, but I knew we could fix that at the academy because he had the right attitude."
They wrote a scouting manual with position-specific requirements that fitted into their game plan. That is Schoeman's main job now, "and one I'm most comfortable in".
The benefits were almost immediate. The Blitzboks were runners-up in the world series four times in a row, and won it last year.
They won a Commonwealth Games gold in 2014 and an Olympic bronze in 2016.
"We now have 26 senior contracted players - both academy and senior Blitzboks - although that distinction is harder to draw," Schoeman says. "Most of the academy players are now capped SA sevens players."Training is done as one big group when we are all in town, which makes for better preparation.
"We'll have simulated matches where the academy team will take on the Blitzboks, but using Fiji, or New Zealand's game plan. That gives the players optimal preparation.
"The idea is that everyone is included in everything. Even injured players come to SAS and participate.
"Technical analysis in sevens has changed massively over the past decade and as a result we have a full-time coder going with the teams to analyse opponents.
"We know every opponent's strengths and weaknesses; where they kick, what patterns they play, what calls and signals they use and much more.
"Because of the structure where we have guys permanently in the set-up, we are able to plan in much more detail than other national teams. I feel sorry for the Springbok 15s coach because he doesn't have the luxury of preparation time like we do.
"I'm old-fashioned in that I don't want to over-analyse everything because your team still has to go on the field and produce under pressure. A lot of responsibility rests with the players, who write tests every second week, about the technical data we have studied."

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