CAPE TOWN – It is said that one of the best ways to lead is to serve.
Many things are said about leadership, in fact. Some say a good leader always puts the team first, that they lead by example, that they embody the core values of their team, that they have good relationships with their team-mates and coaches, that they step up when the team needs them.
There are also those who say captains must be emotionally disciplined, self-confident, good communicators, mentally strong, that they must be visionaries, motivational, and you can go on and on. Point is, there are many different traits and qualities that make people good leaders, and there is no shortage of descriptions different people would ascribe to that role.
Descriptions and ideal personality traits on paper are one thing, though. It’s easy to list those sought-after qualities when it comes to visualising your leader. Finding someone who will embody it, somebody who’ll live it, is something entirely different, and perhaps not as easy.
But the Blitzbokke found someone who made all that look easy. In the 28 tournaments that Philip Snyman has led the Springboks Sevens side, I saw that. Most of those qualities, even those not listed, I saw. And that, for me, was what made him a special leader. But apart from being a captain as fine as they come, Snyman was also a quality player.
When the 32-year-old announced his retirement from all rugby due to a career-ending back injury, he did so with a glittering resumé under his arm.
That list of experiences includes 62 World Series tournaments, 276 matches, 69 tries and 15 conversions for a total of 376 points. It tells of how he represented the Springboks in three Sevens World Cups - in Dubai in 2008, Moscow 2013 and San Francisco in 2018 - making him the only SA Sevens player to feature at three Rugby World Cup Sevens tournaments.
It lists his contributions since making his debut in 2008, and it shares that it was the season Snyman formed part of the historic squad that won their first World Series title.
That awe-inspiring list also speaks of how Snyman led the team to two World Series titles (2016/17 and 2017/18), and while Kyle Brown captained the side at the Rio Olympics in 2016, Snyman was a part of that bronze-medal winning unit.
Looking at all of that, it’s easy to see why Snyman is officially the most successful Springbok Sevens skipper in history. But ask anyone who’s ever played with him, and those credentials probably won’t enjoy the most attention, if any. It’s his character as a leader and as a person that would stand out to former team-mates and mentors.
When coach Neil Powell - who played with Snyman and also coached him - spoke about the role the Bloemfontein-born centre-turned-forward played in the squad over the years, he said that Snyman “excelled” in both situations.
Powell explained that as far as Snyman was concerned, it was never about him - something that could easily be brushed off as some clichéd phrase used far too often by players, coaches or anybody else involved in rugby. After all, how often do players and those who guide them - when asked about an individual feat achieved in a game or even just their thoughts on an upcoming one-on-one match-up - give the “it’s not about me, it’s about the team” response? It’s copious.
But there was something different about Powell’s ‘thank you’ to Snyman.
He spoke about how much the Sevens system benefited from having someone of Snyman’s calibre, both as a leader and a player, as a part of it. He spoke about how Snyman was always willing to contribute, about how he lived their culture. He spoke about how the team and many players in it are better because of Snyman’s willingness to lend a hand.
Snyman was passionate about mentoring those identified as future leaders, while he was also keen on having and developing a leadership group within the squad. Basically, he thought about the squad and its future leaders and not just about his own time at the helm.
And while many things can be said about the Grey College product by his peers, a lot has also been there for those outside of the Blitzboks group to see - from his humility as a person and as a captain to his dedication to the team and his hard work on the field.
As a player, Snyman’s abilities don’t need many a word to build hype around him - nobody features for the Springboks Sevens as many times as he did without being worthy of that spot.
Snyman won’t go down as the most extravagant baller, I’d say. He won’t be immortalised due to his insatiable hunger for scoring tries. His face won’t immediately spring to mind when, 10 years from now, you think of the SA Sevens most sensational steppers over the years. It’s not soaring pace that’ll make him one to remember.
What I do think will make him one to remember, though, is that spirit combined with his rugby-playing ability. He’ll be remembered for the role he played in helping a side that faced its fair share of difficulties towards the end of his career, for how he could inspire a young team in transition to play until the very end and for his ability to bring the best out of them, for his humility and dedication to the SA Sevens family, and for all he did during his illustrious career.
The Springbok Sevens set-up has always had inspirational leaders, and they’ve always had a solid turnover of players to replace the outgoing ones. At times it seemed almost effortless. But Snyman’s departure will be felt, especially at a time when experience is outweighed by young talent in a relatively green squad. It’ll take time to replace that experience and leadership.