SA Sevens comes of age

It was almost inevitable that when South Africa coach Paul Treu sat down for the press conference preceding the Dubai Rugby Sevens tournament, he would be asked for his thoughts on the treatment meted out to Jake White.

That was soon followed by a question about the Springboks’ World Cup victory.

And, while these are legitimate questions—it is basically the same sport, after all—one couldn’t help wondering when last White was asked about Treu or how the South African Sevens team’s victory in Dubai last year affected the 15-man team’s morale.

That’s something Treu is certainly used to, however. He was a Sevens player himself from 1999 to 2002 and has been coaching the national side since taking over the reins from Chester Williams in 2004.

He is also the first to admit that Sevens has often been seen as the younger brother of rugby—the little guy who doesn’t really get taken too seriously. That perception, he believes, is steadily beginning to change.

“If you look at the brand awareness in Sevens compared with 15s, about a year ago there was a huge gap between the two but, after last season, it’s almost on par with the Springbok 15s,” he says, perhaps a little optimistically.

“Our sponsors, Sasol, are doing such a lot with their marketing campaign to get the games live to South Africa and to market the team a little bit better. It’s still not where it should be, but we are working on it, so, hopefully, in the next year or two we will be almost as famous as our 15s team,” he says, with a smile.

It’s been a rather successful year for Treu and his men. They got their series campaign off to a winning start in Dubai last year, with a thrilling second-half comeback to beat New Zealand in the tournament’s final.

With other good performances on home soil in George and in Hong Kong, the South African side managed to finish fourth overall. That result could have been a whole lot better, however, had Treu not lost half his squad to the Super 14.

That’s where this year is a little different. For the first time in South African Sevens history, the coach is working with a squad of players who have been contracted by SA Rugby. With luck this will ensure that there is continuity throughout the season and that will give Treu a chance to build the team; the ultimate goal is the 2009 World Cup in Dubai.

That’s just one of the changes Treu reckons signals that the shorter form of the game is being taken more seriously.

That recognition is something he is passionate to achieve—using Sevens to broaden the game’s appeal in what remains a racially segregated South Africa, especially when it comes to sports codes and their following.

“I think Sevens is important, especially if you want to introduce the game to new players and to a lot of different people, especially black players in South Africa,” he says. “They mostly play football and I think Sevens is really the best vehicle to attract new people to the game of rugby.

“That is something we would like to try to do in the next two years—to introduce the game of Sevens to a lot more people. We are building a brand and we would like to do that globally, starting here in Dubai and then taking it to the rest of the world as well,” he says.

A good example of where this is being achieved is in the United States, where last year’s tournament in San Diego attracted 25 000 spectators.

Of course, success also plays a role in attracting more attention from the public and the media and, while Treu is loath to make any predictions about the Dubai tournament this weekend, he hopes his side can produce a winning start to their 2007/08 campaign.

“We have only three players here who were in the squad last year, so I think it’s going to be one of our toughest tournaments, but we are looking forward to it. We will take it one game at a time, but obviously we would love to defend our title,” he says.

The South Africans kick off with a game against Canada. Next they come up against Tunisia. Their toughest pool game will be against England. All the games are being played on Friday. On Saturday there will be play-off matches, which will be shown live on SuperSport.

And don’t worry, Saturday’s final should not clash with the Springbok game against the Barbarians.

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