/ 10 February 2017

Senatla’s plans for world domination

Legend in the making: Winger Seabelo Senatla in full flight as he scores one of his 189 tries for the Blitzboks. Photo: Russell Cheyne/Reuters
Legend in the making: Winger Seabelo Senatla in full flight as he scores one of his 189 tries for the Blitzboks. Photo: Russell Cheyne/Reuters

“My goal is to become a legend.” Seabelo Senatla does not miss a beat when asked what his ambitions in rugby are. “I want to be associated with the best players to have ever played the game.”

The supremely talented Senatla makes no bones about how confident he is in his own ability. He also has a well-thought-out plan for how he wishes to achieve his goal.

“I see my career developing across three phases,” he says. “I have just finished phase one, where I was entirely focused on Sevens rugby. Then phase two, which I’m about to start, will run for three years and will be primarily focused on the 15-man game with a bit of Sevens at the start of the year. Phase three will be entirely centred on the 15s game.”

Phase one could not have gone better. Last year he was named World Rugby Sevens Player of the Year on the back of scintillating performances for the Blitzboks. This year he has taken his game to new heights while playing a telling hand in South Africa’s dominant start to the season. His 32 tries have helped catapult Neil Powell’s men to three tournament victories and a comprehensive 17-point lead at the top of the table.

In Wellington a few weeks back, Senatla crossed the line in the triumphant final against Fiji to become South Africa’s top Sevens try scorer, beating the record of 179 previously held by Fabian Juries.

Now for phase two. Senatla touched down from Sydney with another winner’s medal around his neck to begin life as a Stormers player, switching from Sevens to Rugby Union.

“I can’t wait to contribute to the team and get stuck into the challenge of Super Rugby,” he says, excited at the new challenge. “I’m trying not to put too much pressure on myself. Obviously people expect a lot from me now that I have the record, but it’s a different game and I just want to take my chances whenever I get the ball.”

No one can doubt he has the speed and finishing abilities to succeed, but some sceptics have pointed to his 1.86m, 80kg frame and wondered whether he is big enough for the bruising South African game. It’s a point that is, interestingly, often raised about black players and is seen as a thinly veiled attempt to undermine their ability to perform on the big stage. Senatla brushes off the concerns as though they were would-be tacklers.

“People have been saying I’m too small since I was 16. I don’t listen to people who try and put me down. I back my tackling technique to bring down bigger guys and, with the ball in hand, I’m always looking for space rather than to run over people. If I bulked up I would lose the one thing that makes me special — my pace.”

Self-awareness is vital for any elite athlete and the young winger has it in bags. He understands what sets him apart and is not willing to sacrifice his gifts to fit any preconceived notion of what a Springbok should look like.

His confidence is founded in impressive statistics but also in an endorsement from the man he wishes to emulate. “Bryan Habana was recently with the team and told me personally that I have the potential to be better than him,” Senatla gushes.

“That is all the motivation I need. I want to win that Springbok jersey and have the number 11 on it every time our country plays. With the Blitzboks we’re encouraged to believe in ourselves and not set any limits. I think you can see where that has taken the team.”

Just as we’re about to wrap up our telephone conversation, I hear a strange thumping noise on the other end of the line. “Seabelo, are you having a massage?” He bursts into a fit of laughter and a string of sheepish apologies. “I just wanted to squeeze everything in,” he explains. “Things are so hectic and I want to make sure I do everything right.”

Having turned 24 on Friday, the speedster has the world at his feet — a far cry from the young man who only five years ago questioned whether he wanted to pursue the sport. “I feel so blessed to be on this journey. I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would be so lucky.”

Senatla does not linger on the hard work, sacrifices and abundant talent that have brought him this far. “I try not to give myself too much praise. A lot of people have to wait a long time for the things that have come my way. Most people never get to experience them at all. To not try and be the best I can be would be to let a lot of people down, most of all myself. All I’m focused on is what lies ahead.”