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06 Mar 2009 10:57
The fifth Rugby World Cup (RWC) Sevens tournament will be played this weekend at a purpose-built stadium in Dubai and South Africa is among the favourites. Times have certainly changed.
Up until 1993 South Africa had never fielded a national Sevens team and, until the beginning of the new millennium, the idea of coaching a format regarded with thinly disguised contempt in the corridors of power was laughable.
Now Paul Treu, the coach of the Springbok Sevens team, is held in high regard all over the world and has even earned the grudging respect of the South African Rugby Union (Saru).
Treu began this season with something approximating a clean slate.
Short of stalwarts such as Stefan Basson and Philip Burger, he was forced to rely on talent identified at training camps.
Then, on the eve of the first tournament in Dubai his captain, Neil Powell, broke his arm.
The captaincy was handed to Mzwandile Stick and the KwaZulu-Natalian reacted in the best manner possible, leading South Africa to victory in the tournament.
A week later in George they did it again, breaking a long-standing bogey by becoming the first Springbok Sevens team to win its home tournament.
Since then the team has lost its aura of invincibility, losing to Kenya in the group stage in Wellington and to New Zealand in the quarterfinals.
With four tournaments on the annual IRB schedule gone South Africa top the log with England and are therefore serious contenders for the title. The position of captain has moved once more, thanks to an injury sustained by Stick. The new man in charge is Mpho Mbiyozo, a Western Province player who first joined the squad in 2006.
Powell, a former captain, has recovered from his broken arm and joins a squad with a purposeful look to it. It includes players with Super 14 experience in Ryno Benjamin and Gio Aplon and the unpredictable genius of Border flyer Vuyo Zangqa, while the gifted Robert Ebersohn turned down a place in the Cheetahs Super 14 squad to support his coach in the Sevens team.
Treu’s men have been in Dubai all week preparing for the tournament, with warm-up games against the United States and Uruguay. They have been drawn alongside Scotland, Canada and Japan and should comfortably win through to the knockout stages. After that it’s in the lap of the gods, but they certainly have the ability to go all the way.
Amazingly enough, the best performance by a South African side in a Sevens World Cup was way back in 1997 in Hong Kong. A team of manifold gifts lost 24-21 to Fiji in the final. It included the likes of Joost van der Westhuizen, Pieter Rossouw, Andre Venter and 21-year-old genius Bobby Skinstad.
It was a remarkable spectacle. Fiji had Waisale Serevi at the peak of his prowess and played an irresistible version of the Sevens game. South Africa, by contrast, had a hastily assembled squad shot through with pace, but lacking any kind of tactical nous. They reached the final on innate ability alone and came agonisingly close to winning it.
In the 12 years since that final the shortened version of the game has changed dramatically. Defensive patterns are the focus of most training camps, so that the game at the highest level can sometimes seem more like chess than rugby. But the adage that there is no substitute for pace remains true: no team can succeed without a “gas-man” and the good sides have two or three.
The same could be said for 15-a-side, of course, and the Bulls will sorely miss Bryan Habana, whose injury will keep him out of the Super 14 for a month. Saturday’s game against the Lions in Johannesburg was a classic example of a team, apparently unbeatable at home, that grows 15 Achilles heels when it has to board a bus or plane.
Back at Loftus this week, the unlucky visitors are the Stormers. In week two the Bulls hammered the Blues at Loftus and in week three the Stormers lost to the same opposition at Newlands. For most of the new millennium Stormers teams have suffered from the same malaise: a good back row, serviceable backs, but no tight five. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Meanwhile, the Sharks remain unbeaten and their defence in the last five minutes against the Chiefs in Hamilton suggests that little can stand in their way.
This week it’s the Blues in Auckland. Two years ago the Sharks’ march to the top of the log was galvanised by a 32-25 win against the Blues in Albany.
In pouring rain Frans Steyn dropped a goal from 60 metres and Bob Skinstad had the best game of the second half of his career.
Whisper it, but we could be in for a repeat of the 2007 final.
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