Coach Neil Powell has revealed the secret behind the Springbok Sevens team’s remarkable ability to triumph from seemingly hopeless positions, but says his players may need the help of a sports psychologist if they grab the World No. 1 ranking and bid for gold at this year’s Olympic Games Sevens in Tokyo.
The Springbok Sevens — known around the rugby world as the Blitzboks — scored twice in the last minute of last weekend’s HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series in Los Angeles to take the final with Fiji into extra time, and then Sakoyisa Makata grabbed the try that secured a pulsating 29-24 victory.
Powell told ESPN: “I have to admit that at times in Los Angeles I did almost give up a bit, and then all of sudden in that final we scored to be just seven points behind and then everything was possible again.
“It was unbelievable to pull that one back and it showed a lot of character – it was unreal.”
Prior to that, the Blitzboks had come from behind to draw 19-19 with Ireland in the pool stages, and to claim a 12-10 win over USA in the quarter-finals having been 0-10 behind.
Additionally, at the Singapore Sevens last year the Blitzboks battled back from 0-19 to beat Fiji 20-19.
They head into this weekend’s Vancouver Sevens leg as defending champions and just four points behind leaders New Zealand in the table.
Powell admits he would much rather his players saved him from the mental anguish of repeated comeback triumphs, but takes great pride in the team’s refusal to accept that any cause is lost, and puts their fighting spirit down to the weekly 45 minutes of wrestling that underpins their campaign.
Coach Neil Powell’s heart rate has been elevated a few times in recent weeks, thanks to the Blitzboks’ propensity for leaving things to the death. Ben Hoskins/Getty Images
The Blitzboks cannot match the height or weight of the Fijians or New Zealanders which means they have to find other ways of staying in the fight and Powell, who used to wrestle in his younger days, pinpoints the gruelling grappling sessions the players endure as a key element in their armoury.
Powell explained: “Definitely we are digging ourselves out of holes we shouldn’t be putting us into with basic errors. But, fighting spirit and ‘never surrender’ is part of our culture and something we build into the players with our once-a-week wrestling sessions.
“Our wrestling sessions don’t involve throwing guys and everyone stays on their feet with a lot of up of upper body work. We are physically smaller than a lot of other teams on the World Series.
“The Fijians and New Zealanders are quite a bit taller than our boys and those specific wrestling sessions help our players understand how to handle those bigger guys and to manipulate their momentum and weight to use it against them.
“It started when I got a good friend of mine who is a wrestler to help us with those kind of contact situations. The Fijians are really tall guys and we have Branco du Preez who is 167 cm and 75kgs being able to be dominant in a contact situation when the opponent is 2m and 100kgs.
“It all comes back to the confidence created by those wrestling sessions and it helps guys like Branco punch above their weight.”
It was du Preez who used all his experience of a remarkable 374 Sevens circuit matches to kick his 423rd career conversion to take Sunday’s final into extra time.
Together with 32-year-old Cecil Afrika, du Preez provides the young Blitzboks players with crucial perspective at times of crisis. The two veterans have helped fill the experience void created by the ankle injury that has kept Siviwe “Shakes” Soyizwapi side-lined for 12 weeks.
While he misses Vancouver this weekend, Powell expects his captain to be ready for the London and Paris legs leading into the scheduled Olympic tournament at the end of July — coronavirus permitting.
Blitzboks skipper Siviwe Soyizwapi has been out injured, and will not feature in Vancouver. Thananuwat Srirasant/Getty Images
With Hong Kong and Singapore postponed until October because of the coronavirus, the Blitzboks are planning to fill in the period before London (May 23-24) by travelling to Europe to play a mini-tournament with France, Ireland and Spain at the end of April, including a week long camp.
Springboks 15s World Cup winner Cheslin Kolbe has made it clear he would like to bid for gold with the Sevens but Powell has confirmed this is unlikely due to the player’s commitments with Toulouse. But Kwagga Smith, who also has a World Cup winner’s medal, is on course to be included for London and Paris.
“It is a delicate balance in terms of bringing in superstars like Cheslin and ensuring the dynamics of the squad are right,” added Powell.
“We said that those players would have to play two tournaments on the circuit to be selected for the Olympics otherwise it wouldn’t be fair to the guys doing the hard yards all season.
“Kwagga will start with us on May 1 that will give him London and Paris but it appears Toulouse don’t want to release Cheslin for tournaments. The door isn’t closed but it will make it difficult.”
Powell and his players are keenly aware of the expectation that will precede them in Tokyo following the Springboks’ triumph in the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan where they defeated England in the final. With such a competitive Sevens series, small marginal gains could be vital as the Blitzboks aim to follow their bronze at the 2016 Games in Rio with a gold medal triumph in Japan.
Powell said: “We are working towards the Olympics taking place at the end of July until we are told otherwise. We struggled with expectation at the previous Olympics as one of the favourites and as South Africans it is always a difficult place to be. It is almost as if we prefer to be underdogs, not favourites.
“The mindset is different and it is something we can’t handle sometimes, and if we are in the situation of being No.1 in the rankings we are going to have to work with somebody to help us to deal with the pressure of being favourites.
“We have had quite a few discussions with Rassie because the conditions are different with the heat and humidity and we will tap into their knowledge of Japan to assist us with the build-up to the Olympics.
“We hope to use the same training camp facilities and try to piggy-back on the experience of the Springboks and we would be stupid not to tap into it. The plan is to get to Tokyo early, play against someone and then head to Kagoshima to have a pre-Games camp.”