The end goal for their 2019/20 season is the Olympic Games in Japan, but for the Blitzboks there are also some very real challenges and objectives in the coming months.
One of those, according to Springbok Sevens coach, Neil Powell, will be to “play to their potential” in the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, of which the third of 10 tournaments kicks off in New Zealand this weekend.
Powell and his troops have arrived in Hamilton, where the HSBC New Zealand Sevens will be contested at FMG Stadium Waikato on Saturday and Sunday, with the Blitzboks sharing first spot on the log with New Zealand after the opening tournaments in Dubai and Cape Town.
The squad that secured 41 of a possible 44 log points has changed for this trip, but all according to plan, says Powell, who did not only tweak his playing personnel, but also certain elements of play.
“No player was going to play in all 10 tournaments and then the Olympics – that is just too much rugby – so the rotation of players was always on the cards,” said Powell.
“We had some guys coming in for the opening leg and then returning to fifteens, we have some guys out injured and we have some guys playing in their first tournament of the series, but it’s all according to plan.
“We have pretty much the squad we expected to have here, bar Siviwe (Soyizwapi) and Kurt-Lee (Arendse), who picked up injuries back home, but it only means they get their break a bit earlier.
“We prepared well and the ‘new’ players, such as Stedman Gans, Cecil Afrika, Branco du Preez, Muller du Plessis and Werner Kok are rearing to go. They have solid experience as well and that will benefit the squad on this trip.”
The Blitzboks face Japan, England and Kenya in a demanding Pool B, with the top side going straight in the semi-finals on Sunday, where the winner of Pool C (France, Ireland, Canada, Spain) awaits.
The long haul to get to Hamilton, with airport stops in Johannesburg, Sydney and Auckland, before a final bus trip to the Waikato town resulted in a revised training schedule, with the first day used to “freshen up the squad and to get the blood flowing through the legs”, according to Powell.
It also included a coffee break, something that had Afrika smiling. The return to the squad for the 62-tournament veteran already had him grinning all the way to Australasia and with his love for coffee well documented, the Blitzboks’ leading points-scorer of all time (1440 points) would be first in line with his order for a flat white.
“It is great being back with the squad and I am very keen to get back onto the field and playing again,” said Afrika, who missed nine tournaments in last season due to injury.
“The warm-up tournaments I played in Kenya and Dubai certainly got the juices flowing and I am very keen to get going again. We need to follow up the good work done by the squad that played in Dubai and Cape Town and if we do what was practised, planned and expected, we will be competitive.”
Afrika, a bronze medallist at the 2016 Olympic Games, is keen to make the squad that will travel to Japan in June: “I would love to be part of that squad, but before that can happen, a lot of other things need to happen, including playing well and to the coach’s expectations here in Hamilton.”
This visit to Hamilton could be the last in his current guise for Kok, another returnee to the squad. The popular player has signed a fifteens contract with the Cell C Sharks and is hoping to play Vodacom Super Rugby with them in 2021, which could see him running out at FMG Stadium Waikato against the Chiefs, but that is not part of his mindset at the moment.
“It’s great to be back, no doubt,” said Kok.
“I cannot wait to go out and play for the team and with the guys again. Knowing it will be my last season with the squad does make me even more determined to make it a good one.”
Kok, a former World Rugby Sevens Player of the Year and a two-time World Series winner, is hoping for another bite at Olympic gold as well, but agrees with Afrika that the immediate challenges demand all their focus.
“We have worked hard at home to make sure we are well prepared for this tournament, which will be very competitive. I want to use every single opportunity I get to lay down my claims and cannot wait to go out and play,” Kok indicated.
Blitzboks’ playing schedule (SA kick-off times):
Saturday 25 January
02h03 – Japan
07h30 – England
Sunday 26 January
01h13 – Kenya