Can the Sevens do it again in George?
Sharks coach John Plumtree won the coach of the year award last week for leading the Natal Sharks through a great season capped with a Currie Cup triumph.
On the night the deserving Plumtree marched up to the stage to receive the plaudits, Paul Treu was marshalling his troops in Dubai and pondering once again whether there is ever a tougher assignment in South African rugby than coaching the national Sevens team.
Treu coached the Springbok Sevens team to second place in last season’s International Rugby Board (IRB) series, but this year he had to do without Fabian Juries, Schalk van der Merwe, Stefan Basson, Jonathan Mokuena and MJ Mentz.
On the eve of the opening tournament in Dubai he also lost his captain, Neil Powell, to a broken arm and it seemed as though the Boks would be there merely to make up the numbers and do some duty-free shopping.
The fatalistic Treu announced a new captain in Mzwandile Stick and got on with it.
He has become inured to the vagaries of team structure, because it happens to him every year.
‘I have to compete with Super 14 teams just to try to compile a squad for all the tournaments. England and New Zealand take a similar position in that they identify the best young players at under-19 and under-21 level, kids they believe have the ability to play international rugby, and they use Sevens as a stepping stone.
“In this country I have to go to the provincial Sevens and club tournaments to look for players,” he said.
The Sevens Rugby World Cup is held every four years and is part of this season’s calendar. It was played over the last weekend of March, midway through the Super 14.
The New Zealand Rugby Union has agreed that national Sevens coach Gordon Tietjens may select one player from each Super 14 franchise to bolster his squad.
It may be assumed that however hard he campaigns, Treu will not receive the same dispensation from the South African Rugby Union (Saru).
Indeed, there will be those in the corridors of power who will point out that Treu’s squad needs no tinkering, since the coach worked his annual miracle and the Boks went out and won the tournament in Dubai.
They repeated the feat of 2004, the year that Treu took over from Chester Williams as national coach.
Hopefully history will not repeat itself in another respect, for that win was annulled before the end of the season as punishment for fielding an ineligible player.
Tonderai Chavhanga would go on to rewrite the record books by scoring six tries on his Test debut at 15-a-side for the Boks against Uruguay.
But in December 2004 the Zimbabwean was still three months away from becoming eligible for his adopted country.
Saru had to pay a R1-million fine and forfeit the points gained at the two tournaments in which Chavhanga played.
History tells us to celebrate tournament wins for the Bok Sevens team because they are few and far between.
The first was in Wellington, New Zealand, in 2002 under the tutelage of Williams, and since then wins have come at the rate of one a season. This week the teams gather in George, a venue at which the host nation has yet to register a win.
For the new members of the squad who won in Dubai at their first outing, Outeniqua Park might come as something of a letdown after the multipurpose stadium that hosted last week’s matches in the Emirates, appropriately named ‘The Sevens”.
The crowds will be much smaller and the pitch a lot bumpier.
Traditionally the Boks have flattered only to deceive in George. In 2002 Brent Russell was given special dispensation to play, despite having a Springbok contract that made him technically ineligible for selection.
Russell, as fine a Sevens player as this country has ever produced, walked off with the player of the tournament award, but South Africa still lost in the semifinal.
The South Africans probably could have bowed out at the same stage last week had it not been for captain Stick’s two magic moments with the boot.
The first was a drop-kick conversion after a last-minute try that sent the game into extra time against Fiji. The second was a drop-goal from 40m four minutes into sudden death that earned Treu’s team its place in the final.
In the final against England, the scores were locked at 12-12 in the last minute. England won a lineout in the Bok 22 and sent the ball right.
Resolute defending stopped the move close to the touchline and when the ball popped out Gio Aplon ran almost the full length of the field before passing to Rayno Benjamin to score the winner.
Once again, Treu has created a rod for his own back.
He formed a winning team without the preparation time he craves and now he has to do it all over again in George.
If he comes through, the Sevens coach should be a strong contender for next season’s coach of the year, but you can be sure he will not be holding his breath.