CAPE TOWN – An unbelievable group of players with an unbelievable culture. That was the way Blitzbok coach Neil Powell described his bunch of winners after they returned home to a rapturous welcome with the World Sevens Series title yesterday.
A couple of hundred fans made the trip to Cape Town International Airport to cheer for and take selfies with their heroes, with flags and home-made banners being displayed.
The supporters sang the national anthem as the team came through International Arrivals, and it was a fitting tribute to a rugby team that is truly representative of South Africa.
The Springbok Sevens team clinched the overall series crown during the Paris Sevens a little over a week ago, when nearest challengers England lost to Scotland in the Cup semi-final at the Stade Jean-Bouin.
The South Africans went on to win their fifth tournament of the season, before claiming the Plate competition at the London Sevens at Twickenham over the weekend.
But it’s been a long time coming for the Blitzboks as their only previous series triumph was in 2008-09 under then-coach Paul Treu and captain Mzwandile Stick.
Powell and current captain Philip Snyman were also part of that squad, and that experience proved crucial this season.
The Blitzboks would’ve been disappointed to end up with just a bronze medal at last year’s Rio Olympics, and the series victory underlines their status as the best Sevens side in the world.
And one of the stand-out factors of the Bok Sevens outfit is a diverse squad of players of all shapes, sizes and races.
It should be regarded as the poster for what real transformation can achieve in SA rugby, and Powell alluded to the benefits of having an inclusive environment in explaining the reasons behind his team’s success.
“It’s hard work by a lot of people, and also people you guys don’t always see – who work behind the scenes. Guys like (strength and conditioning coach) Allan Temple-Jones, who does unbelievable work. Everyone always says we’ve got one of the fittest teams in the series, and it’s Allan who puts in the hard work,” Powell said yesterday.
“Then the other management members from the academy, medical, the sports psychologist, who help to make us successful – it’s a big effort from everyone.
“Consistency is definitely one of the reasons, and then the culture. It’s an unbelievable bunch of guys, and we have guys from different cultures, backgrounds and areas. They enjoy each other’s company, and after a tough training day, they still drink coffee with each other afterwards.”
And on top of it all, the Blitzboks conquered the world in the second half of the season without arguably the best Sevens player in the world, Seabelo Senatla, who was also part of the crowd who wished the team well yesterday alongside Cheslin Kolbe, Kyle Brown and Juan de Jongh.
Senatla was the ace in the Blitzbok team before joining the Stormers for Super Rugby, and it was left to Rosko Specman to fill those enormous shoes, which he did with aplomb. Specman’s reward was a place in the World Sevens Dream Team, along with the tireless Chris Dry, and Powell had a special word for both of them.
“We lost Seabelo after that Vancouver tournament, and Speckies made a massive step-up to almost take that role and responsibility of Seabelo over,” Powell said.
Specman, though, didn’t want to claim too much credit for those electric runs.
“I made a joke with Seabelo when he and Kwagga (Smith) made the Dream Team, that one day, I would like to be there as well. So, thanks to the coach for giving me the opportunity and opening the door for me,” the man from Grahamstown said.