Most local rugby fans have dragged themselves out of the misery created by South Africa’s Super Rugby results and are already looking forward to the Springboks’ defence of their World Cup crown in September.
The country’s rugby bosses have also shifted focus, mulling over how to go about using the top Springbok players during the upcoming Tri-Nations and ensuring that the world champions are fresh and raring to go.
But, one man within the country’s administrative structures has a different objective and a set of goalposts a bit removed from the here and now of 2011. Paul Treu is the national Sevens coach and “2016” is the magic number in his head, as he goes about plotting a path that he hopes will culminate in Olympic glory in five years time.
“I’ve already submitted a strategic plan to South African Rugby regarding how we go about winning or becoming medal contenders in 2016,” says Treu.
That plan includes taking thoughts of a local Sevens academy to a new level, with five to 10 players signed up, and increasing that figure to about 20 the closer it gets to the Olympic qualifying year of 2014.
“In 2016 every single player in the world is going to be made available for the Olympics,” says Treu.
“You could end up playing against a Sonny Bill Williams or a Richie McCaw. So it’s important for us to identify the players now, even if they are going to move on to 15s, so we can phase them back to compete against those players with similar abilities and talents.”
The plan is to sign up young players — even those who are straight out of school — expose them to Sevens rugby, educate them in how the national Sevens camp operates, toss them back to 15s for a few years as they further their careers, and then hopefully lure them back in time for a shot at Olympic gold in 2016.
“At the moment, we don’t have a choice,” says Treu, “because, if we don’t take the players out of school, we won’t see them again. That’s the reality we are facing.
“We’re not in competition with the 15s. We’re there to make South African rugby stronger,” he says.
But there’s no doubt that Treu and company will always have to play second fiddle to the more traditional form of the game. At least the situation is a far cry from when Treu took over as national coach from Chester Williams in 2004.
“Way back then, the team wasn’t as professional as it is now and came together for a weekend camp or a week-long camp,” says Treu.
He set about changing the mind-set of South African rugby officials, the public and the media.
He convinced SA Rugby that Sevens rugby also needed a more professional approach and he very shrewdly targeted the media as a means of getting his message across.
“There was a concerted effort and almost a strategic plan,” he says. “It was vital to build a rapport with the media.”
A more professional approach and the creation of a full-time base in Stellenbosch at the end of 2006 also resulted in improved results and since then Treu’s squad has chalked up at least one tournament victory a year, achieving the holy grail of winning the IRB Sevens Series in 2008/2009.
Veteran sports journalist David van der Sandt has travelled with the team for the past few years and says Treu’s passion, thirst for knowledge and advice, and the fact that he’s “a bit of a maverick and someone who thinks out of the box”, have been key to the team’s success.
“On the advice of Rassie Erasmus, he decided to use the rolling maul from a line-out, something that was previously unheard of in Sevens. He used it twice last season, both times against Fiji and both times it resulted in tries,” says Van der Sandt. “The way the Boks beat Fiji in the final at Twickenham has been hailed as the best-ever tactical approach in many years of Sevens rugby.”
Sevens rugby has helped launch the careers of Springboks such as Jean de Villiers, Gio Aplon, Brent Russell, Ryan Kankowski and Heinrich Brussow.
But Treu has also received enormous credit for the opportunities he’s afforded players of colour, with his squads often looking more representative of the country’s demographics than some Super Rugby outfits.
“I don’t know what it is, because, for example, a player was released by the Lions to play for us and you can’t tell me that that player, in the space of a month, can become a world-class player in Sevens, but in 15s, he’s not making it,” says Treu.
“Maybe it’s whether a coach believes in a player or not and maybe it’s whether a player has been given an opportunity or not.”
Treu stops short of saying categorically that the country’s Super Rugby coaches are not giving players of colour a fair shot, but it’s clear that there’s something there, bubbling under the surface, for a man who is obviously passionate about rugby in South Africa.
“I think it’s about the opportunity and instilling the belief in that player that that player is capable of achieving more.
“I think if you give that belief to a player then that player, irrespective of colour, will run through a wall for you. But, that being said, different coaches use different methodologies.”
The Treu methodology seems to be working.
The national Sevens team may not have scaled the heights of 2008/2009 for the past two seasons, but Olympic glory may just be the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow come 2016 if Paul Treu has anything to do with it.