Years of preparation and toil came to nought for the Blitzboks as their golden dreams all came crashing down as they lost 7-5 to Great Britain in the Rio Olympics semi-final on Thursday.
The Springbok Sevens team used the entire last season of the World Series to fine-tune their game and test combinations for the Rio Games, compared to a Great Britain side that came together 10 weeks ago for the first time – as England, Wales and Scotland play as individual nations in the World Series.
But despite the endless tournaments and training camps, the South Africans came up short when it mattered most at the Deodoro Stadium. What was most frustrating against Great Britain was the fact that they had a number of opportunities to clinch victory, but couldn’t land the knockout blow.
Now they can only contest for a bronze medal when they face Japan at 11.30pm SA time on Thursday as the Asian outfit lost 20-5 to Fiji in the other semi-final. The final takes place at midnight.
The Blitzboks lost star speedster Seabelo Senatla to a wrist injury on Thursday after he took a blow in the final movement of their quarter-final victory over Australia. Senatla initially thought that he would be fine for the semis, but he didn’t recover and was replaced by Francois Hougaard against Great Britain.
It was an enormous blow to lose Senatla – who was the leading try-scorer in the World Series with 66 last season – as he is a deadly finisher out wide with his electric pace.
But strangely coach Powell didn’t bring in another like-for-like replacement in the starting line-up in the shape of Cheslin Kolbe, who isn’t far behind Senatla in the speed stakes.
Instead, the much bigger Dylan Sage was chosen along with the three first-choice forwards Kwagga Smith, Philip Snyman and captain Kyle Brown. The Blitzboks lacked balance as a result, and it cost them dearly in the end. Tim Agaba – who has been in top form in Rio – was also unlucky to miss out on the starting team.
They started off brilliantly, though, as inspirational skipper Brown won a superb turnover inside his own half and Rosko Specman broke through the British defence and made it all the way to their 22. Snyman followed up and won a loose ball on the ground, and somehow managed to flip the ball up for a flying Brown to open the scoring.
Sage was penalised twice in quick succession, and then a huge blunder by Smith let Great Britain off the hook. With the Blitzboks looking a sure bet to score, Smith inexplicably threw a long pass to the left, that missed its target, when he had two unmarked teammates to his right just five metres. That would’ve put Team SA 10-0 up with a conversion to come.
Team GB started making inroads up the middle through the giant James Rodwell and the hard-working James Davies, and it was only some desperate tackles by Juan de Jongh, Snyman and Cecil Afrika that saved the day.
It was clear that the Blitzboks were lacking a cutting edge without Senatla available and Kolbe sitting on the bench, and Great Britain took full advantage. The energetic Dan Bibby surged into the South African half, and some slick passing put Dan Norton into a one-on-one situation with Sage out wide.
Speed merchant Norton was never going to lose that duel as he easily stepped past Sage to dot down under the posts – just emphasising the fact that the Blitzboks lacked a similar player out wide.
New Zealand referee Richard Kelly was reluctant to blow up Great Britain at the breakdowns despite them often not releasing the tackled player, while they also pushed close to the offside lines with their rush defence.
But that wasn’t the main reason the South Africans lost the game. They had two late opportunities, the first of which saw Kolbe just short of the line, but the ball was recycled to De Jongh, who tried to force a long pass to Kolbe out wide and it went forward when the simpler option would’ve been to draw the defence first and find a teammate in a closer position.
Then in a last-gasp effort, Great Britain kicked the ball into touch as they thought the siren had already gone, but the match officials ruled that there was still time for a final lineout to South Africa close to the British 22.
But they couldn’t control possession and Team GB booted it into the stands for a second time to go through to the final.
South Africa (5) – Try: Kyle Brown.
Great Britain (7) – Try: Dan Norton. Conversion: Tom Mitchell (1).
Fiji vs Japan
Fiji (20) – Tries: Vatemo Ravouvou, Semi Kunatani, Josua Tuisova, Seremaia Tuwai.
Japan (5) – Try: Teruya Goto.
Bronze Medal playoff (11.30pm SA Time): Japan vs South Africa
Gold Medal Final (Midnight SA Time): Fiji vs Great Britain
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