Blitzbokke on form despite loss of Treu

Andy Capostagno

South Africa's Sevens rugby team has reached the final of the Dubai Sevens under coach Neil Powell, who took over from Paul Treu earlier this year.

Cecil Afrika has the ability to change a game in a moment of spontaneous ingenuity. (Gallo)

If a change is as good as a rest, then South Africa's Sevens team, the Blitzbokke, showed the benefits by reaching the final of the Dubai Sevens last week.

The South African Rugby Union (Saru) chose not to renew the contract of long-term Blitzbokke coach Paul Treu earlier this year. His replacement, Neil Powell, has been involved with the national side for almost as long as Treu, but it is never easy stepping into the shoes of an institution.

The Blitzbokke went unbeaten in Dubai until, in the final, they ran into Fiji. The islanders beat New Zealand 44-0 in the semis, their heaviest defeat in 20 years of being coached by the remarkable Gordon Tietjens. The final was not as one-sided, but it was 19-0 to Fiji at half-time and in effect over as a contest. It ended 29-17.

This was the second tournament of the series and the teams have now decamped to Port Elizabeth for the third, which will be played at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium this weekend. South Africa finished fourth in the series opener at Australia's Gold Coast in October, and are now third in the standings, one point behind Fiji and five behind New Zealand.

Significantly for the emotional growth of the team, they met Kenya in the quarterfinals in Dubai: the first time that the Blitzbokke found themselves face to face with their former coach. A well-contested game was won by South Africa 21-12 and this week the two sides have been drawn together in pool play.

Treu has been at pains not to burn bridges with Saru, but a hint of acrimony is palpable. The man credited with turning the Blitzbokke into perennial contenders put systems in place to pilot the side through to the Rio Olympics in 2016, but now it will be up to Powell to realise those aims. Treu will be at the Olympics, but at the helm of Kenya instead of South Africa.

Treu was not at the Gold Coast Sevens for reasons entirely unconnected with rugby. Just a few days before he was due to fly to start his new life, the tragic events at the Westgate Mall occurred in Nairobi. His contract was put on hold, but eventually he was able to travel – and what he found must have been something of a culture shock.

In South Africa, the Blitzbokke have a pre-season training camp in Stellenbosch and a host of world-class sporting and scientific facilities to draw on. In Kenya, there is no dedicated facility for the rugby team and the players are old-fashioned amateurs. Many are students, which means that training has to be fitted in around their studies. Two players – Oscar Ouma and Billy Odhiambo – pulled out of Dubai at the last minute due to exam pressure.

This week exams have also claimed Patrice Agunda, so it is palpably not a level playing field, but Treu said there was a moment when he knew he had made the right choice in throwing in his lot with Kenya. "I asked them what they wanted to achieve and they said they wanted to be the best in the world," he said.

During Treu's 10 seasons in charge of South Africa, the team won 14 tournaments, second only to New Zealand over the same time frame. So, Powell has a tough act to follow and it would be surprising if he felt the need to make radical changes.

Indeed, there is a parallel to Pieter de Villiers taking over from Jake White after the Springboks had won the 2007 World Cup: put your own stamp on things, but don't throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Powell's team talks in Dubai were noticeably less intense than those of his predecessor, a fact that Treu was happy to concede.

"I've always been intense on the side and I'm not quite sure how I'm going to deal with the Kenyan players," he said. "But one thing that I've realised is that they play better when they're relaxed and when they're a happy team."

Powell's problem this week is that three players picked up injuries in Dubai: Stephan Dippenaar, Frankie Horne and Jamba Ulengo. The ­quality of the replacements called up as cover – Steven Hunt, Kwagga Smith and Rosco Speckman – means the team should not suffer, though. Additionally, the Blitzbokke's star player, Cecil Afrika, is fully fit this week, which he was not at the corresponding time last year.

Afrika and his old schoolmate Branco du Preez are the most important cogs in the Blitzbokke wheel. Both have the ability to change a game with a moment of spontaneous ingenuity. The crowd will recognise both instantly, thanks to their dreadlocks, while another player who will get a special roar from the Port Elizabeth crowd is Cheslin Kolbe, the Western Province flyer.

Kolbe had scant game time in Dubai, but was being eased back after last being part of the squad at the World Cup in Russia earlier this year.

It is refreshing that he has been released to play Sevens by his union, especially after last week's narrow-minded decision by the Blue Bulls, who refused to release Flip van der Merwe to play for the Barbarians against Fiji. Shame on them.

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