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Neil Powell: "We're tired of getting second on the series"

December 8, 2016 4:21 pm

Speak with South Africa head coach Neil Powell for more than a handful of minutes and you’ll recognise an air of continual improvement in the way he speaks about rugby sevens. Combined with a natural humility, Powell is not one to let an isolated victory blinker his overall goal with the Blitzboks: to win an HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series.

A win at the Emirates Airlines Dubai Rugby Sevens may have been the perfect start to the 2016-17 edition of the series, beating Fiji 26-14 in the final and going unbeaten, but history suggests South Africa will have to fight hard to maintain their lead. For the past four series, the Blitzboks have finished as runner-up. In fact, the last time South Africa won the series was back in 2008-09 when Powell was a player and the head coach was Paul Treu, who Powell eventually succeeded in 2012.

In the 2012-13 series, Powell’s first in charge, the Blitzboks won more tournaments than any other side (three) but finished 41 points behind New Zealand. In 2013-14, they narrowed the gap to New Zealand by 28 points, and in both 2014-15 and 2015-16 they were just 10 points behind winners Fiji. There are tough runs, and there are tough runs. Powell knows its time for South Africa to clinch another series.

“Somebody said we are tired of getting second and the fact we did well in the past two seasons doesn’t mean will perform again,” said Powell. “We can’t come into this tournament and think we can just start where we left in Dubai. We need to start all over again. That will be the theme this week in our preparation, getting mentally prepared for Cape Town again. We have a really tough pool with USA, Australia and Russia so I think we are going to need a big mental shift. There are some technical areas we can improve on, we’ll be working on both defence and attack this week, particularly game management.”

Cape Town was South Africa’s only tournament win in 2015-16, beating Argentina 29-14 in the final. It wasn’t their only final though. The Blitzboks also had the chance to leave Wellington, Vancouver and London with a tournament Cup, but narrowly missed out on all three counts. In Wellington, a last second try from Joe Webber gave New Zealand a 24-21 win. In Vancouver, a Gordon Tietjens master plan foiled South Africa’s chances, with New Zealand winning 19-14, while in London it was Scotland who scored a last gasp try through Dougie Fife to win 27-26. Nine points in total across three finals, was the difference between one tournament win and four in 2015-16 for Powell’s side.

“We had a good review of last season,” he said. "We looked over the stats and it was clear we were up there in a number of areas such as tackles completed, tries conceded and tries scored. We were up there with Fiji and New Zealand on those aspects but we fell down on game management.

“Discipline also cost us at times and in sevens you can’t afford to take your foot off the gas at all. If you don’t take your opportunities you will suffer the consequences. We were one of the teams who got the most yellow cards last series. Elsewhere there were errors in big games, such as not being ready for the kick off against Scotland in London back in May, where we failed to keep the ball and they got it back then scored.”

In Dubai, Powell’s side had three World Rugby Sevens Players of the Year and a huge amount of experience. He brings this same squad to Cape Town but is aware that while his side have plenty of pace in Cecil Afrika, Seabelo Senatla, Rosko Specman and Branco du Preez, the key issue he faces is having a side that is physically able to compete with bigger sides.

“We are looking to play that perfect game,” he said. “Be solid in defence and not give away soft tries but also to be ruthless in our attacking mentality. We pride ourselves on our defence and contact skills, as we are one of the smaller teams on the circuit. A guy like Cecil Afrika or Branco Du Preez, who weigh 72kg must be able to tackle or take the ball into contact against a guy who weighs 100kg. That’s the main focus of our work.”