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The South African Sevens team is in Wellington for the third tournament of the 2016/2017 World Sevens Series. The Blitzboks go into the tournament on top of the log after a win in Dubai and a second place in Cape Town. Coach Neil Powell has named a side with a mix of experience. He’s included one debutante – Zain Davids, who represented the Junior Springboks as a flanker in the 2016 World Rugby u20 Championship. Of the 13 players, four have played less than 10 tournaments – Davids (0), Sandile Ngcobo (2), Siviwe Soyizwapi (4) and Dylan Sage (9). Powell is also without two key players – Kyle Brown and Cecil Afrika who are battling with knee injuries, which means the squad is without over 100 tournaments’ worth of experience. Powell himself is carrying an injury. I spoke to him on Hot919 before the squad flew to Wellington. – David O’Sullivan
Neil, normally when you’re talking to the coach, it’s often about injury concerns. It’s a little unusual to talk about the coach’s injuries. But here you are with your arm in a sling. What happened?
Yes, it was the warm up in the quarter final in the Cape Town tournament before we played Wales. Obviously, when you finish playing rugby, you always feel that you can still do it and that you can match the young guys in the system who are well conditioned. But unfortunately they showed me that my body is actually older than I think it is. So during the warm-up I tried to stop Kyle Brown and he opened me up too much and I tore the tendon in my pec. So I had to get an operation on the 4th of January just to fix it and attach the tendon back to the bone again.
So are you going to be ‘walking wounded’ in Wellington?
I have to be in the sling for four weeks. This is only two weeks now so four weeks will take me up to the Wednesday before the Sydney tournament. But the specialist said keep on until after Sydney, I don’t want you to jump up from excitement or anger and maybe tear the tendon off again, so maybe keep the sling on till after the Sydney tournament.
Is this your worst injury you’ve ever suffered in rugby?
No, definitely not. I hurt a ruptured disc in my back and also a broken arm.
But you didn’t expect to be injured as a coach?
No, definitely not.
Let’s talk about Wellington and this incredibly tough group that you’ll be facing – Japan, Australia, Fiji. Have you known a tough group like that before?
Yes, it’s definitely a tough pool to have Australia and Fiji, and even Japan have beaten New Zealand in the Olympics. It’s definitely a tough pool to be playing in and I think it’s going to be important for us. Every individual in the team must be in form and play to their full potential, otherwise we can find ourselves in the Plate or Bowl or one of the other, lower competitions – I know they’ve changed the name, but one of those lower competitions. So we must make sure that when we hit the field that first day in Wellington we need to play the game up to our standard and we need to play to our full potential otherwise a team like Japan can be a tough team to beat.
— World Rugby Sevens (@WorldRugby7s) January 26, 2017
It’s interesting to hear the way you are approaching this – Japan is the tough team to beat. I am expecting you to say Fiji is the tough team to beat. It seems now that this is a tournament where everybody is capable of beating everybody else.
Yes, and I think this how the World Series has changed over the past few years. In the past few years you knew that you were going to beat Japan by 50 points but I think that’s not the case anymore. I think all the teams developed well and I think every team is a threat. And if you are going to be complacent and underestimate any team in the World Sevens Circuit, then they are going make you pay for it. So I think for us, it’s all about focussing on one game at a time. We can’t focus on Fiji if we haven’t played Japan yet. It’s all about focussing on the next step and hopefully if we get through that Japan game successfully, we can shift our focus to Australia which will be the next one for us.
Do you think there is there is a different energy playing Fiji in a group stage rather than in a knockout stage? If you lose in the knockout, you are out. But if you lose in a group stage, you’re still in.
Yes, I think for us it is a game at a time, and for us that will be game three, day one. A quarter-final for us is game one, day two. So we don’t call it quarter-finals, or semi-finals, or finals, the final for us is game three, day two. It’s all about our standards every single game and we can’t drop our standards because it’s a pool game or lift our standards because it’s a knockout game. We need to be good, all round, every single minute of the game whether we play a final or whether we play a group game against Japan.
So you don’t see these as “this is a group game, this is a quarter final game”? It’s just “this is the second game of the second day”?
This is the second game of the second day and we need to, we call it 3 times 6 is 18, we can’t be 15 because we play Japan in a group game, and we can’t be 21 because we play New Zealand in the final. We need to keep our standards every single game and make sure we are happy with our processes and the urgency and intensity that we put into the game when we get off the field.
That’s so interesting because I think as fans, even the commentators, might suggest that if you won your first two group games easily and you’ve got a third game that could be an easy one, you might take your foot off the pedal. You don’t do that.
No, definitely not. I think it’s all about keeping your momentum for us, especially in a Sevens tournament. You can’t afford to lose momentum, and I think that’s maybe what happened to us in the Olympics when we made a few changes in that third game and were already through to the quarter-final. We made a few changes and possibly lost a bit of momentum. So lessons learned from the past, and like I said to someone else the other day, I see myself still as a young coach that can learn a hell of a lot. This is only my fourth season in Sevens. I’ve played Sevens for a while, so I feel like I’ve been around for ages, but only my fourth season as a coach at national level.
You have to do without Kyle Brown and Cecil Afrika, both injured, both very incredibly experienced players and lynch pins in anybody’s team. How much of a blow is that?
Yes, definitely a big blow. Not just experienced players but also leaders within our system. Luckily we’ve still got Philip Snyman, our seasoned captain who’s there, but also we’ve pulled in some youngsters like Kwagga Smith and Justin Geduld who we see as our future leaders, and even guys like Werner Kok and Chris Dry who are good leaders in their own right. I think Werner is definitely an important member of our team not just on the field and I think he played exceptionally well in the last two tournaments and he is also the guy who keeps the team spirit and the team vibe off the field. So we have a lot of leaders in the system, but definitely a blow for us losing two key players and two leaders in Kyle and Cecil. But it also gives us the opportunity to give some new guys the chance to play. A guy like Zane Davids who comes in for Kyle in the forwards and Siviwe Soyizwapi will hopefully do well and will fill Seabelo Senatla’s boots when he goes off to Super Rugby after these two tournaments.
Those are big shoes to fill aren’t they – fast shoes to fill? When you did a retrospective of last season, and you looked at the number of tournaments that you lost as a result of a last minute try by the opposition, losing in the last few seconds. That’s obviously something you need to address. When we look at the way you played in Dubai and Cape Town, apart from the final in Cape Town, we can see that this is now a team of finishers. Was that something that you really had to address? Did you see that as a weakness of last season?
I think that if it happens often, you can’t overlook it, and you must learn from these lessons and address it to see how you can change it. And I think definitely it was something that happened to us a few times last season and something that we had to address. We did speak about it and we did tell the guys that we need to be more aware of finishing games and finishing off when we are ahead and to hang on to that lead. I think Scotland in London last year was obviously a painful loss when they beat us in the dying seconds, and once or twice we lost against Fiji also like that. But I think sometimes people don’t know or don’t remember, they always remember the negatives, but sometimes we’ve beaten teams in the last minute, but nobody will keep count of that. But yes definitely lessons that we can learn from the past, and once we’ve learned those lessons we look through the door to the future and the next step and hopefully be successful.
But you’ve got good momentum now haven’t you? Top of the log at the moment, being in the final of two tournaments, one win and one runner-up. Surely you are really looking good for Wellington?
Yes, I think that obviously the goal for us is to build on Cape Town and Dubai and I think looking at the two tournaments, I’m still not happy with the way that we played and the standard at which we played in Cape Town. The best part of those tournaments was Day 2 in Dubai when we got a nice momentum and the guys all of a sudden got to click. We played some fantastic Sevens rugby and hopefully we can hit that form again when we play in Wellington. But we’ve got a tough pool and we’ve got a tough crossover with New Zealand’s group and if we want to be successful in this tournament, we need all the players to be on form and we need all the individuals in the team to play to their full potential.
You travel the world playing Sevens. Which city do you like to visit the most?
I must say that I quite enjoyed Vancouver last year. It was the first time that we went to Canada and to Vancouver and I really enjoyed it. It was a clean city and it seemed like everything worked perfectly there and obviously it was a little bit different to South Africa where it is cold and you have the snow on the mountains. We even went up one of the mountains and had a walk in the snow and had a good lunch at one of those places next to a fireplace. We rarely see snow in South Africa and it was really enjoyable and a nice clean city where it seems that everything works.
Do you know what your players all say? Do you know where they like to go? They’re a wild bunch, they all say they enjoy Vegas.
No! Vegas is not my favourite place to be honest, I like the more quiet places where you actually can hear yourself and find yourself. But maybe that’s because they are a few years younger than me.
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