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Powell’s Blitzbok farewell tour off to a perfect start

After 9 years at the helm, coach Neil Powell will be looking for a championship hattrick to solidify his legacy with the Blitzboks before joining the Sharks. With one title won convincingly, the other two are within his grasp
Thu, Aug 04, 2022

PHOTOS: Blitzboks Twitter

Outgoing coach Neil Powell’s fine balancing act and his commitment to the Blitzboks’ cause will ensure rivals in the World Sevens Series remain on high alert for the remainder of this all-important season.

On Sunday evening, the Springbok Sevens team delivered one of their all-time great performances to obliterate Fiji 31-7 in the gold-medal match at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.

But it was a score line that not only belied South Africa’s ruthless efficiency on attack and their suffocating defense, but also solidified their reputation as a deviating force from Sevens’ status quo.

The abbreviated form of the game is all about free-flowing, attractive rugby with the intent to dazzle and entertain its audience. And no one team encapsulates that ideology better than the Fijians, with their languid excellence, style and grace when in possession of the ball.

By contrast, the cornerstones of the Blitzboks’ game are defensive cohesion and superiority, physical dominance at the collision points, the exertion of authority at the set pieces and a tactical kicking game (a rarely employed tactic in Sevens) second to none.

In short, if Fiji are the epitome of how Sevens rugby ought to be played, South Africa are the antithesis. And that contrast has always ensured that this is a closely fought fixture and this gold-medal encounter should have been no different.

But it was. South Africa played total rugby – with brute physicality, rock solid defense, unrivalled and unpredictable kicking, innovation and finesse, intensity, speed and peerless fitness – to render the ‘Flying Fijians’ grounded from start to finish.

On Monday, social media was abuzz in celebration of Powell’s tactical genius, in particular, and the Blitzboks’ triumph in general.

Commenting on his team’s success, though, Powell said: “I’m probably more relieved than anything else.”

One could be excused for thinking it an underwhelming response. But considering their inexplicable implosion at last year’s Olympic Games in Tokyo, where they slumped to a shock defeat against Argentina in the quarterfinals and ultimately finished fifth; and dating further back to the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia where they finished fourth; or more recently, their rotten form in the Sevens Series; it’s quite understandable why Powell felt relief as opposed to elation.

Having started the 2021-22 season with a record 36 consecutive wins and four straight tournament titles (six if you include the last two titles of the previous campaign), the Blitzboks were well on track to be crowned World Series champions. But when a haphazard performance in a pool match at the Singapore Sevens led to a 12-7 defeat against the USA, it set in motion an unprecedented downward spiral for these Blitzboks.

The team went from winning the first four events of the series to not qualifying for the semi-finals of the next four, leaving Powell to question whether his charges had forgotten how to play and describing it as the team’s worst performance in his nine-year tenure at the helm.

Fast forward two months and the South African players and coaches alike, had used that not-so-long-ago admonishment as the driving force for their return to the pinnacle of the game at a tournament which served as a microcosm of their entire season: a team disrupted by injuries and an inevitable player-exodus, but one that is too proud, talented and tenacious to mount anything despite setbacks, whether foreseen or unforeseen.

And that is testament to the dynasty that Powell has built, not only within the Blitzboks’ ranks but across SA Rugby’s Sevens programme, which started in 2013.

Now on the cusp of his departure from Sevens to join the Sharks as their director of rugby, just two more challenges lie in wait, challenges during which Powell could immortalise his legacy in Sevens folklore.

First up is the final tournament of the Sevens Series in Los Angeles. South Africa lead the way at the top of the standings by a mere two log points more than Australia and a win could well see them be crowned 2021-22 World Sevens Series champions after all.

That will be followed by the highly anticipated Sevens World Cup in Cape Town in September, where the Blitzboks will aim to use home-ground advantage and the backing of the partisan crowd to pursuit of a maiden World Cup win.

As it stands, their recent success story has raised the expectations for the final two events with Powell in charge. Here’s hoping the Blitzboks raise the bar and complete the trifecta to give him the perfect send-off he so richly deserves.

In a season where three titles are up for grabs, the Springbok Sevens team have clinched one already and are well-placed – based on form, available personnel and sentiment – to secure the other two. The hattrick is on.

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