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.