After a sobering year in which they failed to win a single final and bid farewell to symbolic coach Sir Gordon Tietjens – Scott Curry believes the future is once again bright for sevens rugby in New Zealand.
Tietjens stood down from a role he had held for 22 years in August last year, following an unsuccessful Olympic bid in Rio where the All Blacks Sevens exited to eventual champions Fiji at the quarter-final stage.
In their first HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series that followed without their legendary leader, New Zealand finished fourth, their worst finish in eight seasons. They also failed to win any of the 10 tournaments – something that had only happened twice in the previous 18 editions of the series since it was first introduced by the IRB (World Rugby) in the 1999/2000 campaign.
A young squad with some fresh faces, put together by new coach Clark Laidlaw and his new management team, has been together a matter of months, whereas opponents have been building for years.
Yet, despite all this, the All Blacks made the final in the 2017/18 series opener in Dubai on Saturday – where they eventually fell to South Africa, the new dominant force on the circuit who are aiming to emulate New Zealand’s majestic feat of 12 series crowns.
New Zealand are in a rebuilding phase, but co-captain Curry claims that doesn’t count as an excuse for not winning.
“We always put pressure on ourselves to win every game,” said Manawatu man Curry.
“I wouldn’t say we’re surprised to be in a final. Every time we go out to play we expect to win. We’re disappointed we lost but we’re excited with what’s to come.
“We were talking before the South Africa game, thinking we’ve still got a lot to work on, which we do, so to reach a final is pretty pleasing and I’m really proud of the boys’ effort over the weekend.
“We’ve only been together a couple of months whereas most teams have been together for years. So for us it’s an exciting time.”
WATCH | Hear how the All Blacks Sevens reacted to their encounter against the defending champions South Africa in the final of the Dubai Sevens.
— NZ7s (@nz7s) December 3, 2017
Curry and Co were beaten 24-12 at The Sevens in the final game of the weekend, the Blitzbokke breezing into a 19-0 first half lead before Andrew Knewstubb and Curry saw the men in black reduce the gap to 19-12 with a quickfire double.
But Tim Agaba powered over to win it for South Africa at the death. Curry felt his side let the opportunity to triumph slip through their grasp, but claims they will take the positives from defeat and use it to improve during the term.
“The bounce of the ball, we were a little unlucky, it comes down to those little things in a final,” said 29-year-old Curry.
“We needed to score in that first half and we didn’t finish our opportunities, which you need to do in a final. Some of our boys have never been in a final before, so we’ll learn from that.”
And despite reaching the Dubai final, Curry said no goals for the season will be set.
He added: “Not really. We just go out to win every game and do that black jersey and each other proud and not disappoint each other.”
Teammate Sam Dickson was similarly encouraged by the team’s performance.
“A young team, new coaching staff, first tournament so we’re pretty happy with that,” said Dickson, 28, who made his sevens bow in the 2012/13 campaign.
“A few things to work on but against one of the best teams in the world and stacked with experience, to take it right to the end, we’re pretty stoked with that.
“It’s hugely encouraging. We put in a lot of hard work over the pre-season, not just physically but in our culture so it’s good to see it’s paid off for today.”
New Zealand results:
New Zealand 24-12 Samoa
New Zealand 21-19 Argentina
New Zealand 22-17 United States
New Zealand 14-12 Kenya
New Zealand 14-5 England
New Zealand 12-24 South Africa
He was nicknamed “Zebra” at birth, and Kwagga Smith has certainly been showing his stripes by staring for South Africa in two codes of rugby this year.
An intrinsic part of the South Africa sevens set-up for several years – he won a gold medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Games – Smith enjoyed a breakout year in 15s rugby as he made the Super Rugby final with the Lions, who were beaten 25-17 by New Zealand’s Crusaders.
On top of that he was named man of the match for the Barbarians against New Zealand a few weeks ago and collected the Player of the Final award last night as South Africa swept to a 24-12 win at the Dubai Sevens, the opening leg of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series.
Zebra can seemingly do no wrong – and now he’s targeting a place in the Springboks 2019 Rugby World Cup squad.
“You must set your goals and my next goal is the Commonwealth Games and the Sevens World Cup,” Smith, 24, said after Saturday night’s triumph.
“After that I will do my best to get into the Springbok team for the 2019 World Cup in Japan. I’ll just try my best, work hard and give myself the best chance that I can give myself. And then we can look at others like another Olympics, if I’m blessed to play for so long.”
Smith, whose birth name is actually Albertus Stephanus Smith, told a touching tale in which he revealed he was actually given the name Kwagga – the Afrikans word for quagga, an extinct subspecies of plains zebra – by his older brother Willem on the night he was born.
Smith said: “I’ll tell you a story, it’s easier to understand. My brother Willem is two years older than me and we (family) farm in northern South Africa.
“The night I was born he was with my grandparents on the farm and they asked him ‘what’s your brother’s name?’, and obviously my brother is two-years-old, he grew up on the farm, he knew animal names, and he just said ‘Kwagga’ and it’s just stuck.”
Smith has certainly been a beast in his early career in rugby, switching seamlessly from sevens to 15s. And having shone against the All blacks in a 31-22 defeat at Twickenham on November 4, Smith is happy to be back with his sevens family for the 2017/18 World Series campaign.
He added: “Both give you satisfaction. For me it’s just an honour to play and earn the respect from the other players. It was awesome to meet new guys with the Barbarians, and it’s awesome to be back with my family and contribute while I’m here.”
And despite his flawless transition between the codes, Smith admits it’s been a lot of hard work on his part, as well as that of his coaches at both levels.
“It’s easy for me to come into a team like this and perform because the guys are so willing to work for you and it helps they make you feel so welcome,” he said.
“I’m lucky because I’ve been doing this for five/six years now, going to 15s and coming back in, the coaches have helped me and it’s awesome to be with the guys again.
“It’s definitely not been easy, coming from sevens to 15s and playing Super Rugby. I’ve had a few Currie Cup seasons but never played a full Super Rugby season, but it’s easy to go into a system where the team is doing well.
“I’ve performed there and there’s some good coaches, Johann Ackerman (former Lions coach) is a brilliant coach and had the trust in me and my abilities, and has given me the chance to prove myself.”
At around the same time as 15s rugby was plunging further into the abyss, South Africa’s sevens side was asserting itself as the new, true power of the game’s shortened format.
As the Springboks ended their autumn series on a low note in defeat to Wales in Cardiff, the Blitzbokke were blasting away the old guard of New Zealand in the Dubai Rugby Sevens final.
A 24-12 victory was far from commanding and New Zealand began their 2017/18 campaign with something they never attained last season – an appearance in a final.
But Neil Powell’s green army are well and truly on the march. And the head coach admits he wants his side to emulate what the All Blacks Sevens, the dominant force of sevens over the years, have achieved – even though he doubts such dominance can be repeated in the modern age.
“Obviously it is something that we would like to do and we have positioned ourselves well now among the best teams, but it’s going to be tough to be dominant for that long like New Zealand were in the past,” said Powell after South Africa retained their Dubai title with a 24-12 win over their Southern Hemisphere rivals.
“I don’t think you’ll get a team that dominates like New Zealand has in the past. I think you’ll get teams who will be successful for a year or two then there will be a change of the guard quite often in the future.
“It’s always going to be a challenge. Teams up there are competitive. England, Fiji, Australia had a fantastic tournament, New Zealand are in a building phase and are just going to get better.”
First-half tries from Rosko Specman, former World Rugby Sevens Player of the Year Seabelo Senatla and HSBC Player of the Final Kwagga Smith put the rampant Blitzboks 19-0 up against New Zealand, who were chasing their first tournament win since Vancouver in 2016.
And they rallied in the second half, captain Scott Curry and Andrew Knewstubb got their side back into the match, but with their opponents threatening a superb comeback, Tim Agaba powered over to close the game out.
Smith has enjoyed a 2017 campaign to remember so far. He had a breakthrough year with the Lions, superb as the South African side reached the Super Rugby final against New Zealand’s Crusaders.
He was also named man of the match against the All Blacks in a 31-22 defeat a few weeks ago, dismantling the myth players can no longer switch between codes at the elite level.
“He’s a phenomenal player, phenomenal in both codes and I’m pleased we can have someone like that in our system,” Smith said if the 24-year-old.
“Hopefully we can hold onto him until the 2020 Olympics because I think a lot of clubs will be wanting to throw a bit of money at him.”
After expressing displeasure at the way his defending HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series champions began their defence in a lacklustre 19-10 victory over invitational side Uganda, Powell praised the way his side ended the weekend.
“I’m always worried coming into this tournament. I’m always worried about complacency from our team, but I have to give credit to the players,” said Powell, a former Blitzbokke player himself.
“Every time they put their jersey on their backs there’s a lot of pride and they want to make that green and gold jersey one of the best brands in the world.”
For New Zealand, they had to be content with silver, but having lost the lustre of previous years, they can be encouraged by reaching a final – last season their best placing was third, three times.
And captain Curry said his side will take comfort from a fine showing from a side that’s not been together very long.
“It’s exciting looking forward,” said the 29-year-old.
“We’ve only been together a couple of months so to go and push the best team in the world, we’re pretty pleased with that.”