HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series 2016-17

Cecil Afrika thought injury in Hong Kong would ruin his career; now he returns for his 50th tournament

South Africa’s greatest points scorer is hoping to help his country end their barren record at the Hong Kong Sevens

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 April, 2017, 5:49pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 April, 2017, 9:17am

Cecil Afrika’s record as South Africa’s greatest-ever points scorer suggests a career full only of finer things the game of rugby can bring but the strapping on his left knee tells the true story.

The 29-year-old has battled back from career-threatening injuries that have eaten significantly into his opportunities over the past decade – making his record of 1,204 points, and the fact that this year’s Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens marks his 50th tournament overall, even more impressive.

While the strapping was there at King’s Park on Tuesday as the South Africans blew the cobwebs away, the report after training from the man himself was that he was ready to roll.

Watch: Cecil Afrika set a South Africa scoring record

“I just so happy to make it to 50,” said Afrika. “There have been a lot of injuries and setbacks so I never thought I would be here but yet again here I am, and I am just so grateful to have the opportunity to get out there and enjoy doing what I love to do. I’m feeling fit again and the knee is feeling good. I am running well so I can just get out there this weekend and enjoy myself.

“You really feel the crowd behind you here in Hong Kong and to finally win at my 50th tournament really would be something special. I actually first hurt my knee here so to win would be very special to me.”

It would also bring to an end one of the great anomalies of the game – the fact that the South Africans have never tasted victory in Hong Kong.

It’s a fact that baffles Afrika – the Blitzboks have made the final three times here since 1997 but they’ve always found one team better on the final day, most recently in 2009 when they were denied at the death by Fiji 26-24.

“We’ve come close over the past 10 years but it has never really happened, has it,” said the fly half. “I think if we want to be successful this weekend we just need to do our basics very well, and build on that. If you take care of the small things you will have the opportunity to score and the opportunity to win at the end of the day.”

The South Africans have certainly rolled into town as the form team of this season’s HSBC World Sevens Series, with four tournament victories so far, and having made the final in the other two played.

That they’ve lost those two finals to England - in Cape Town (19-17) and then last time out in Vancouver (19-7) – must be of some concern. But they were battered and bruised in Canada after the arduous North American swing of the world series and – by its end – out on their feet thanks to an inspired moment of magic from England great Dan Norton.

South African coach Neil Powell justifiably rolled his eyes when asked why he thought his team had never won here – “I come here every single year and get asked that question!” – but said it would be a special occasion if they did, even more so considering what it would mean to a very special player.

“Cecil is just remarkable,” said Powell. “He should be on 75 or 80 tournaments but he had a lot of injuries. He’s an exception player and an exceptional guy one and off the field.

“He’s one of the few guys who really understands the game. He thinks about the game does a lot of re-evaluation of himself after tournaments and he’s a guy who’ll be a good coach. He not only understands that game, he understands the why. He gets it immediately. He’s a massive leader just by doing his thing.”

South Africa have drawn Canada, Kenya and France in pool B – pleasant enough, on paper at least – and that breakthrough victory here would all but see the world series title theirs for the taking with three more events left on the calendar.

“It’s just human to look at the points table and start to think about how many points you need to gather to win,” said Powell. “But we need to focus on the things that make us successful. We don’t want to come into a tournament with a focus of just making a quarter-final or just a semi-final.

“All our focus and energy goes into our first game against France, and hopefully we can top our pool and go on to the Cup final and win that.”