Several challenges await the Springbok Sevens team at the HSBC New Zealand Sevens in Hamilton this weekend, when the third tournament of 10 in the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series kicks off early Saturday morning (SA time) at FMG Stadium Waikato.
The format of the tournament has changed from recent years, with only the top team in each pool going into the semi-finals, while the combination with the women’s tournament will also see an extended rest period between matches.
Furthermore, the Blitzboks travelled to New Zealand with five players getting a first bite of the current series, and a new captain in Stedman Gans.
They also face formidable foes in Japan, England and Kenya in a very competitive Pool B of the tournament, but for Gans it all adds to the motivation of the individual and the squad.
He attended the traditional captain’s photo on Wednesday at the iconic Hamilton Gardens and admitted that it was a proud moment for him.
“I saw so many of these pictures in the past, and never realized that I will be featuring in it myself in future,” said Gans.
“It was a massive feeling, standing amongst some great captains and great teams that will play on the weekend.”
For Gans the responsibility of filling some big shoes comes with a feeling of pride.
“I came into the team when Kyle Brown and then Philip Snyman were the captains and last year, Siviwe Soyizwapi took over,” he said.
“They are great people and great players and I learned a lot from them, on and off the field. It is big shoes to fill, but the examples set were great, so I know what to do.
“I am very lucky to have some very experienced players around me. Branco du Preez and Chris Dry are the two most capped Blitzboks ever and Cecil Afrika is the leading points scorer of all time. And they are playing next to me this weekend. It will help a lot as I can focus on my role as a player without having to worry about the rest of the guys.”
Gans admitted the scrapping of the quarter-finals will add an edge to the tournament and will require a strong mindset from the players.
“We are lucky in that we already have a system in place that does not look too far ahead – we believe in the first game on the first day and adjust from there,” said Gans.
“It means we only focus on that first match, as that needs to lay the foundation for the remainder of the tournament. We are also not results driven, but rather believe that if we execute well and stay within our structures the result will look after itself. That will ease the pressure, no doubt.”
• The Blitzboks face Japan first up. The teams have met 25 times in the World Series and five times in New Zealand. Japan scored their solitary win in 2000, when they won 24-19 in Tokyo. The Blitzboks hold an average 37-4 score line against Japan, with their last match – in Cape Town – delivering a 49-0 win.
The record against England is much tighter. The Blitzboks have won 44 of 83 matches with the average score 17-15. The last clash between the two saw South Africa secure a close 19-14 win in Dubai.
The Kenyans have won two of the five clashes between the sides in New Zealand and both matches in the current series were close, with the Blitzboks winning in Dubai and Cape Town. They played 57 times, with Kenya winning five. The average score is 26-9.