High-flying Blitzboks seeking Canada Sevens title defence
JOHANNESBURG – It’s hard to argue with the mark made on the world sevens stage by Blitzbok Cecil Afrika, who has pretty much achieved all there is in his stellar career on the World Rugby Sevens Series.
But the fire and drive to finish at the top – on his own terms – is still burning as bright as 11 years ago when the 32-year-old, who celebrated his birthday on Tuesday, took the field for the first time wearing the Springbok Sevens jersey in Dubai.
Afrika 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 silverware collection and it was at this tournament in Rio where well-known actor Matthew McConaughey asked to meet the Blitzbok star pitch-side.
The world was his oyster since. Almost – as Vancouver is one tournament where Afrika has not gained any gold medals yet.
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 was 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.
Afrika would love nothing more to leave Canada with a gold medal, but that outcome was not high 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”.
The Blitzboks’ leading points’ scorer of all time was pretty clear in his presentation.
“We need to take ownership of what happens on the field,” said Afrika.
“It is important to analyse where we made mistakes and why and how to solve them. 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.
“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.”
Springbok Sevens coach Neil Powell swopped the roles of Mfundo Ndhlovu and JC Pretorius for this weekend's @CanadaSevens with Ndhlovu promoted to a first appearance in the 2020 @WorldRugby7s while Pretorius will do duty at as the official reserve player. pic.twitter.com/BgqdPo9dsr— Springbok Sevens (@Blitzboks) March 5, 2020
Afrika is respected and even 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 are 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.”
African News Agency (ANA)