South African rugby received a much needed boost on Sunday as the Blitzbokke claimed the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series in Paris.
The South Africa team were worthy winners of the 10-tournament global competition making eight of the nine Cup finals so far this season and claiming the title with the London leg still remaining as they hold an unassailable 34 point lead on the series points table.
Their triumphant campaign of course began here in the UAE in early December last year where they won the first of five tournaments this series.
But will this victory give a much needed fill-up to the fifteen-man game in South Africa and is there anything Springbok coach Allister Coetzee can take from the Blitzbokke to help their more famous namesakes?
2016 was among the worst on record for the Springboks: beaten by Italy for the first time, lost to Ireland for the first time on home soil, lost to Argentina for the first time in Argentina and on a disastrous end of year European tour went winless, including a 16-point drubbing against England.
Their overall record for the year – played 12, won four, lost eight – 240 pts for and 329 against. Scarcely believable for such a proud rugby nation and the 1995 and 2007 Rugby World Cup winners.
After an exhaustive review Coetzee managed to hold on to his job for a second year, albeit with a revised management team, but will that be enough to reverse the Boks fortunes?
His compatriot at the Sevens, Neil Powell, was appointed in mid-2013, taking over from Paul Treu. The feeling under Treu was that the talented Blitzbokke squad was under performing. In his nine seasons in charge (2004-13) he won just one title (2008-09) and at the end the squad was judged to be trending down, leading to him being replaced by former scrum half Powell.
No one has deserved a title more than Powell. His team finished second in his first three years in charge and in his fourth they have won the title. They were also unlucky to finish third at the Rio Olympics when they were clearly the second best team in the tournament behind the majestic Fiji.
There are three pillars to Powell’s success: talent, depth and an experienced core leadership group, including some of the greatest.
Sevens players ever to play for their nation – Cecil Afrika, Branco du Preez, Werner Kok, Chris Dry and captain Philip Snyman. The team also has a winning culture, a by-product of the factors above.
In stark contrast the Springboks are suffering a talent drain with many of their best players being tempted overseas due to the weak Rand. Just look at the Champions Cup winning Saracens team which had no less than six players in their 23 who began their careers in South Africa.
There are currently over 100 of South Africa’s best players plying their trade overseas.
Although many of these are available for the national team their absence greatly weakens the depth of the domestic competitions, limiting the development of SA based players, and adds a level of difficulty for Coetzee who must factor in the disruption of parachuting overseas based players into his team who have barely a week to get ready for a Test.
Of course Powell doesn’t have to worry about any of his players being nabbed for overseas Sevens leagues. There is only one Sevens World Series, run on international eligibility guidelines, and Cecil Afrika can’t run off to sign with England even if he wanted to.
Also the Blitzbokke are Sevens specialists so it’s unlikely that Super Rugby teams will come knocking on the door for their services.
The player drain in South African fifteens has decimated the leadership core of Coetzee’s team.
Last year’s captain Adriaan Strauss bizarrely announced his retirement from international rugby just a few months into his tenure.
Coetzee’s options of a new SA-based captain are Warren Whiteley, Handre Pollard, Pat Lambie, Francois Venter and Siya Kolisi – none of who fill you with any confidence except perhaps Whiteley.
But finally the difference may come down to team culture and whereas the Blitzbokke have a winning culture that players want to be a part of, the Boks now have a culture that players don’t necessarily want to be associated with, proud as the history of the Boks may be.
That culture lies squarely at Coetzee’s feet and it’s a department where he can certainly learn a lot from Powell.
The first step in righting the Bok ship would be for Coetzee to invite Powell to spend some time in the Bok camp, along with some of his leadership group.
Their presence and winning buzz could do nothing but good for the Bok cause.
France could host the All Blacks in a Test to be played in Dubai in November 2018, as part of a new Memorandum of Understanding signed today between UAE Rugby and the Federation Francaise de Rugby.
FFR president Bernard LaPorte was in Dubai today for the signing of the MoU and was excited about playing an international in the UAE.
“One of our objectives in signing this MoU is to organise games with the French team here in the UAE in the next couple of years” said Laporte.
“We also plan to welcome coaches and referees from the UAE in France at the national centre of in Marcoussis in order to support them to increase their own level. Also welcome some players in France and national team of the UAE.”
Qais Al Dhalai, the Secretary General of UAERF, confirmed plans for the historic test.
“The match will most probably be in 2018 at The Sevens or it might be at one of the bigger stadiums in Abu Dhabi or even Al Ain” said Dhalai.
“This would the first time in history that UAE has hosted a big game of Fifteens, Sevens of course but the first for Fifteens.”
Dhalai will now begin to finalise plans with France’s opponents.
“Now that the MOU has been signed we will communicate with the other union (to finalise details).”
British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland always said that some top players would miss out on the tour to New Zealand – and that was certainly the case when his 41-man squad was named Wednesday.
Before the list was announced the 53-year-old coach had stated his intention not, as England coach Eddie Jones suggested, to try and negate the All Blacks brilliance, but to match fire with fire and play rugby against them – as Ireland did so successfully in Chicago last year.
“You can’t go and shut up shop against them or try and close down a game” said Gatland, “You’ve got to try and be positive and play rugby – take risks. The best example I thought of was Ireland in Chicago. That was being brave, being bold.”
So Gatland intends to be bold, and that was certainly the case when the names were read out. There was, as expected, a host of star Englishmen missing – captain Dylan Hartley among them – but there was also a couple of absolute bolters who no one saw coming, like New Zealand-born Irish centre Jared Payne and English-born Welsh flanker Ross Moriarty.
Payne, 31, may turn out to be a master-stroke. He has the ability to play centre and fullback so can cover for the two No15s in the squad – Leigh Halfpenny and Stuart Hogg. He also knows New Zealand conditions well, playing four seasons of Super Rugby and he’s dependable under the high ball, which will be so important.
Moriarty is a major surprise especially given the backrowers he pipped for a place, with Chris Robshaw, James Haskell and Jamie Heaslip among them. But the abrasive 23-year-old has been picked on merit after an impressive Six Nations campaign and consistent performances club side Gloucester. He’s big (1.88m, 106kgs) and mobile, in the Billy Vunipola mode, and will make the opposing loose forwards work hard in defence.
There was of course huge outcry with only two Scots in the entire squad, with one wit on Twitter suggesting that if Gatland were picking the UK Davis Cup squad he would leave out Andy Murray.
Interesting couple of days. Absolute honour to be named in a strong @lionsofficial squad. Very excited about the challenges ahead!— Jonathan Joseph (@Jonathanjoseph0) April 19, 2017
Lock Jonny Gray is unlucky but if truth be known, winger Tommy Seymour only got in because he is Scottish, with Simon Zebo or Tommy Bowe better options.
“Rubbish” you may cry, but that is the nature of a Lions tour. Everyone will have their own opinions, and argue them vehemently.
Gatland appears to have backed down on one call with the late inclusion of livewire England centre Jonathan Joseph. Like Hartley and lock Joe Launchbury, Joseph seemed destined to miss out, but perhaps due to media uproar when news leaked of his exclusion, Gatland found a place for him.
Most of the squad was as expected and our likely squad published in Tuesday’s Sport360 only included two players who didn’t make the cut – Garry Ringrose and Gray.
But the only question that matters is: Has Gatland selected a squad that can beat the All Blacks? On initial inspection, the answer is no. However, there is one chance.
Last year in Australia one man completely dominated the series from first kick-off to final whistle, earning England an unprecedented 3-0 series victory.
All Glory to God 🙏🏾🙌🏾— Maro Itoje (@maroitoje) April 19, 2017
He was everywhere – every lineout, maul, ruck. His presence was inescapable. He simply overpowered the Wallabies, like man among boys.
This Lions series may come down to the same young man, extraordinary 22-year-old English lock/flanker Maro Itoje, who is the most exciting rugby player to emerge for years and youngest Lion among the tour party.
He alone will have to carry the Lions to a win in two of the tests, and one of those victories will have to be at Eden Park, a venue the All Blacks have not lost at since 1994.
The task is difficult but not impossible, although some of Gatland’s selections, especially the omission of Hartley and Launchbury, have made it harder.
Whatever Gatland does, the series will come down to a number of key contests: George vs Coles, Itoje vs Retallick, Vunipola vs Read, Murray vs Perenara, Sexton vs Barrett, and North vs Savea.
If the Lions win half those match ups then you give them half a chance. If you don’t, we all know what’s coming.