This will be the nineteenth time South Africa has hosted a Sevens Series tournament, and they have triumphed at home just four times. That might not sound like a great return – because, in truth, it is not.
However, when you consider that the Blitzboks have reached the final in all four of the last competitions – and won three of them – then their recent record as hosts is hard to beat. Incumbent head coach Neil Powell, a former Blizbokke captain in his playing days, took charge in late 2013 and during his tenure the side has looked unbeatable – home and away.
Powell masterminded two tournament victories at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth in 2013 and 2014 – both against New Zealand (17-14 followed by 26-17) – and at the inaugural HSBC Cape Town 7s in 2015 (29-14 versus Argentina). Last term they were on course for a fourth-consecutive win at home, but England pipped them 19-17 in a sensational finale. Will the odds-on favourites manage to gain revenue this time around?
The adage that success breeds success is certainly true of sevens in South Africa right now. Under 39-year-old former scrum-half Powell, the team have won the 2014 Commonwealth Games and last season were crowned HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series champions for the first time since 2009.
That the Blitzboks’ domination comes at a time when the nation’s XVs side is struggling serves to amplify their achievements. Little wonder, in November, the Blitzboks were named South African Sports Team of the Year. South Africa Rugby president Mark Alexander said the side “have not only captured the very competitive Sevens Series crown, they also captured the hearts and minds of all South African sports lovers with their success”. Without question, Powell’s team has elevated sevens to new heights in South Africa.
And more glorious headlines might well be generated this coming season. With a Commonwealth Games title and HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series crown to defend, plus the opportunity to win a maiden World Cup, 2018 could be a golden one for the South Africa. More young rugby players than ever before will no doubt be inspired to emulate their sevens heroes – and that was in evidence at the recent HSBC Tag Rugby Clinic in Cape Town.
Indeed, since 2009, the Sevens Series’ top-tier sponsors HSBC has been supporting South African rugby at grassroots entry level through TAG Rugby. The aim is to increase the number of underprivileged rugby players in the proud rugby nation, grow the support base, and – with luck – cultivate the next crop of international sevens stars.
Even though South Africa fell at the final hurdle to England 12 months ago that didn’t in any way halt interest in this year’s HSBC Cape Town 7s. In fact, if reports are to be believed, the tickets were all sold in less than hours when they were released in July. That is 110,000 tickets across the two days in total. As such, the atmosphere will be sensational.
The players seem to love playing in Cape Town, too, with captain Phil Snyman calling it the “mother city” of rugby in South Africa. Seabelo Senatla said: “It’s ‘lekker’ to come to Cape Town as winners last week. It will do us so much good coming on the back of a win‚ and it has set us up well for the season. We only get to play at home once a year so our goal is obviously to give the fans what they want: the trophy.”
In Dubai Powell welcomed back Blitzboks regulars Kyle Brown, Kwagga Smith, Justin Geduld and the aforementioned Senatla. Former captain Brown only played in the first two tournaments of last season before sustaining a serious knee injury, while Geduld was absent for five tournaments thanks to a poorly foot. And Smith and Senatla missed half a dozen competitions each because of Vodacom Super Rugby commitments.
The star players came back with a bang in the desert, though. Smith was named player of the final – a 24-12 win against New Zealand – and he made the tournament’s dream team, alongside Senatla, and fellow Bliztboks playmaker Cecil Afrika.
Nothing is guaranteed in sevens, as the players on the circuit well know – heck, (supposedly) lowly Uganda gave South Africa a fright in Dubai in the opening weekend and the defending champions had to use all their experience to carve out a 19-10 win – but that is part of its great appeal.
However, Powell’s team face Kenya, France and Russia in Pool A at the HSBC Cape Town 7s, and it would trigger a tumultuous shock if they didn’t make it though to the last eight of the main competition come Sunday.
On paper there are plenty of other tasty match ups in the other groups, though. In Pool B there will be a trans-Tasman clash between New Zealand and Australia, while the Americans would also fancy their chances of reaching the last eight.
Elsewhere on Saturday, defending HSBC Cape Town 7s champions England have an equally tough run in Pool C, facing Scotland and Argentina; and as Uganda proved in Dubai they are no pushovers. In Pool D Olympic champions Fiji tackle near neighbours Samoa, as well as Canada and Wales, who on their day could go all the way.
South African captain Snyman, who will be running out in his home city, said of the draw: “We have a tough pool in our home tournament against Kenya‚ Russia and France and it’s going to be physical but I think we are going to be ready.
“To play here in the mother city Cape Town‚ in front of family and friends, and in a packed stadium‚ is going to be something really special.”