Although the Blitzboks claimed the 2017/18 HSBC World Sevens Series title in their 60th and final match of an incredible campaign in Paris on Sunday‚ success was forged 12800km away in Stellenbosch.
South Africa defended the title they won in 2017 with a 24-14 win over England in the Paris final‚ after Fiji‚ who held a seven–point lead going into the tournament‚ tumbled at the quarterfinal stage.
In the end‚ SA scored 182 log points to Fiji’s 180 – the closest ever title race in the 19-year history of the World Series.
New Zealand won by two points over Fiji in 2007‚ but the season only had eight tournaments and not the current 10.
The Blitzboks’ feats are beamed from exotic locations around the world over eight months‚ but the toil into making them champions happens away from the camera lens.
In sweltering January and February heat‚ to biting cold in mid-winter‚ current and future Blitzboks are moulded at the Stellenbosch Academy of Sport (SAS) under SA Rugby’s Sevens High Performance Manager Marius Schoeman. What they are doing there is one of SA sport’s great successes.
“A huge factor in professional rugby of any level is player conditioning‚” Schoeman said.
“We are able to get that spot on because we have total control over our contracted players. Other national teams simply don’t have that luxury.
“We were the first sevens Academy in the world and England followed us. NZ and Australia starting academies.
"Fiji are the exception‚ but they have their own in-built academy‚ which is their genetics. They are incredible athletes.”
The Blitzboks won the series at a canter the previous season‚ with one round to spare and by 28 points. This year‚ they needed every minute of the campaign to get the job done.
But what made it even more impressive is that coach Neil Powell had to juggle his resources for three distinct challenges – the World Series‚ the Commonwealth Games and the upcoming World Cup.
The Blitzboks were also struck by a swathe of injuries that ruled out experienced players such as Kyle Brown‚ Branco du Preez‚ Rosko Specman and Cecil Africa for lengthy periods.
Others such as Dylan Sage and Justin Geduld also missed tournaments along the way while Seabelo Senatla‚ Kwagga Smith and Tim Agaba only made an impact in the opening four tournaments before Super Rugby duty.
Despite his weakened squad‚ Powell leaned on the Sevens Academy to keep the conveyor belt of talent coming. And he wasn’t afraid to throw youngsters into difficult situations. He sent a squad with five uncapped players‚ and only one player with more than 10 caps‚ to Hong Kong.
That tournament was just a week before the Commonwealth Games and Powell risked by keeping his older‚ more experienced players back.
In the end‚ the callow Hong Kong group finished third earning 17 log points‚ with Fiji winning. It meant a swing of five points in the islanders’ favour‚ but as damage limitation exercises go‚ it was a huge boost for the Blitzboks.
Schoeman sagely predicted that the benefit of youngsters’ performance in Hong Kong would only be fully appreciated later.
“Even though we didn’t win in Hong Kong‚ we are going to reap the rewards of what happened over the coming months and years‚” Schoeman said at the time.
For every Du Preez and Specman that dropped out‚ emerged a new talent. Zain Davids‚ Dewald Human‚ Muller du Plessis‚ Mfundo Ndhlovu‚ James Murphy and Stedman Gans all emerged.
They are all products of the Academy that Powell and Schoeman established on a shoestring budget in 2010 and now contracts 28 players.
The Blitzboks used all 28 players this season‚ handed seven uncapped players debuts and still retained their title.
Fiji were more dynamic at times‚ winning five of the 10 tournaments‚ but the Blitzboks‚ despite all the changes‚ disruptions and introductions‚ remained hugely consistent.
They appeared in every semi-final‚ made five finals winning two‚ were third three times and fourth twice.
“Training is done as one big group when we are all in town‚ which makes for better preparation‚” Schoeman said.
“We’ll have simulated matches where the Academy team will take on the Blitzboks‚ but using Fiji‚ or New Zealand’s gameplan. That gives all the players optimal preparation.”
Although the Blitzboks lost some battles along the way‚ they eventually won the war because of the consistent quality of players emerging from the Academy.