Canada gold still eluding icon Afrika
The fire and drive to finish at the top still burns bright for Blitzbok legend Cecil Afrika after 11 years in the green and gold jersey, and he would like nothing better than to win gold in Vancouver this weekend, the one stop on the World Sevens Series where he has not tasted success.
Afrika, who turned 32 earlier this week, won the World Series three times with the Blitzboks, although, in his first season with the team (2008/09) he was only a member of the wider squad and did not play in any tournaments.
Since then though, the Eastern Cape native has pretty much conquered the world.
It was no surprise when Afrika was named World Rugby Sevens Player of the Year in 2011, as he delivered one match-winning performance after another and he has hardly slowed down since. A knee injury almost ended his career, but he bounced back to claim more accolades.
In 2016, Afrika added an Olympic bronze medal to his collection and it was at this tournament in Rio where well-known actor Matthew McConaughey insisted on meeting the Blitzbok star pitchside.
The world was his oyster since. Almost - he has not won a gold in Canada.
For the first couple of seasons after Canada was added to the World Series, the Blitzboks’ claim to fame was helping a stranded motorist to change a flat tyre, but last year that bogey was broken as they left BC Place victorious - but Afrika missed out in 2019 due to injury.
This time around, their swagger into the British Columbian city comes with being defending champions as well as winners last weekend in Los Angeles, a title the Blitzboks won in spectacular fashion.
It would be hard to find any arrogance in that swagger though, as the South Africans have been truly grounded and humble as they prepared in what is most likely Afrika’s swansong in Canada.
But Afrika’s personal objective was not on the agenda when he presented the defence session to the team this week. In fact, it was all about the Blitzboks’ processes - the accountability and the roles and responsibilities of each squad member. Or, as Afrika likes to say, “doing the right thing when no one is looking”.
“By analysing our games, one also gets a better understanding of what plays work best and in which positions on the field, so it is an important aspect of our preparation for the weekend,” he said.
“We did not have a perfect match in LA, so this review probed the reasons.
“There were some honest and brutal exchanges, especially on the defensive effort, but we were all prepared to own up and that made it a very productive session.”
Afrika is revered in the game but is also the first to admit that reputations do not win contests, especially in the Blitzbok camp, where the next generation of players is setting the world alight.
“They certainly keep me on my toes, they are such a talented group, so you need to be at your best just to keep up,” smiled Afrika.
He missed nine of the 10 tournaments in 2019 due to injury - including the trip to Vancouver - and wants nothing more to leave Canada knowing that nothing was left behind on the field.
“Last week is gone, this tournament is one that provides us with so many opportunities and that is what we must embrace and exploit,” said Afrika.
“It starts with the off-the-field stuff first - being on time for example - and if that is done well, the on-field stuff will fall in place too.”