First things first – break Hong Kong Sevens duck, says Blitzbokkes coach Neil Powell ahead of ‘Rio warm-up’
South Africa still looking for their first triumph in the sport’s showpiece tournament
It’s a fact that must stick in the collective craw of a nation obsessed with rugby that South Africa have never won the Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens.
They’ve been runners-up three times – the latest in 2009 and ending in a heartbreaking 26-24 loss to Fiji.
There have been Plate wins in 2011 and 2014 but the Blitzbokke have in recent years never quite seemed to fulfil the potential and reputation they’ve brought to town.
It was a point not lost on coach Neil Powell after he helped his squad acclimatise and brush off the cobwebs with a spirited training session at King’s Park on Monday, less than 24 hours after they had touched down.
“I think in the past it’s been because we focus too much on the tournament and we’ve made it bigger than it actually is,” Powell opined.
“You have to treat it as just another tournament. We’re always best when we focus on our process and what we want to achieve and not on the tournament – and we have to do that here.”
South Africa are third in the HSBC Sevens World Series standings, a point behind the Fijians and a point in front of New Zealand.
Their one Cup victory this season came over Argentina (29-14) at home in Cape Town in December, while they lost 24-21 to New Zealand in Wellington.
More recently they have had their chances, too.
“We’ve been up there a few times and been let down by lapses in concentration,” said Powell. “There was Australia in Vegas (14-12 semi-final loss) and then New Zealand in Vancouver (19-14 loss in the final) were we lost the game because we lost focus.
“But overall we are happy with the type of sevens rugby the guys are playing. If you look at all the stats we are up there with the leaders in all the categories.”
The Olympics, obviously, are on everyone’s minds this week but Powell has been stressing to his squad that it must be a case of first things first as they look to make right that anomaly on their record of global successes.
“Hopefully, we’ll get our focus right this weekend,” he said. “I’m happy with the way we’ve played the last four or five tournaments and hopefully now we can finally walk away from here with that result at the end of the day.”
With Rio on the horizon, the South Africans have been tinkering with their squad all through the series, handing tryouts to the likes of 2007 Rugby World Cup hero Bryan Habana.
He’s not made this trip – heading back to France and Toulon instead – but there are four changes to Powell’s squad from the last leg of the series in Vancouver, all no doubt eager to stake their claims as the clock ticks towards August.
There’s a debut looming for former Southern Kings wing Siviwe Soyizwapi, while Ryan Kankowski, Philip Snyman and Stephan Dippenaar have all been around the squad previously.
The coach pointed to that tightness at the top of the standings when talking about the affect the chopping and changing was having on the series. The thinking being that it’s been just that little bit harder for teams this season to get settled.
“Obviously the end goal is the Olympics in August,” Powell said. “All the teams are trying out different players and game plans. So it’s been an interesting season.
“With the 15s guys they bring their 15s habits and we have to change those to sevens habits.
“If feels like the guys want to win the series – we are always out there to win – but their focus is more on Rio. It’s a difficult one for all of us.
“The world series is obviously important for all of us in regards to our seeding for the Olympics so it is important to remember that as well.
“We know all about Hong Kong and hopefully this year we’ll have what it takes to win.”