What happened in Vancouver should stay in Vancouver. That is just about how Springbok Sevens coach Neil Powell feels on the eve of the Hong Kong Sevens, the seventh tournament in the 2018/19 World Rugby Sevens Series.
It is, as always, a very important tournament for the Blitzboks, even more because of their slow start to this series. They are chasing a place in the top four in the series to assure that they will be an automatic choice for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, thereby avoiding qualifying via play-offs.
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They have moved up to fourth place after their Vancouver win and are mine points clear of fifth-placed England whose placing will be that of Team Great Britain side for purposes of qualification.
The Blitzboks (89 points) are 24 points behind leaders USA (113) and unlikely to make up the leeway to retain their title for a hattrick of series wins.
However, there is a (very remote) chance of catching with New Zealand (106) and Fiji (101) to improve their placing. But that is the bigger picture. For now, they are concentrating on Hong Kong, where they have never won.
SA Rugby, in an issued statement, says that the Blitzboks completed their training for the Hong Kong Sevens on Thursday bar a quick captain’s run a couple of hours before their opener on Friday against Japan (kick-off at 12:06 SA time), and Powell was pleased with the week’s preparations.
“There are a couple of changes and a total of four new players from the Vancouver tournament and that considered, I am happy with the way things went,” said coach Neil Powell.
Powell stressed the fact that the team will start with a clean slate, despite winning in Vancouver last month, their first tournament victory in the present World Rugby Sevens Series.
“That win will not mean anything here in Hong Kong,” said Powell.
“It did help with the belief and was good reward for the work done up to that point. It gave the squad some momentum. But we start afresh here in Hong Kong and all focus will be on delivering a performance we can be proud of in our first match against Japan.”
Powell made two significant changes to the squad for the trip, moving Werner Kok to the forwards and including the uncapped Angelo Davids. Integrating them into their new roles was part of the focus this week.
“They need to understand their roles and responsibilities in the team, so we did focus a bit on that,” explained Powell.
“The most pleasing aspect about the win last time was the development of individual players into the team environment and the development of the team in executing our processes. If we can continue making progress in that regard, I will be a happy coach.”
Powell said the younger players (four are making Hong Kong debuts) have brought heaps of energy into the squad: “It is now up to the senior players to use that energy and guide the guys in channeling it into the right direction. If we manage that, we will be good for this weekend.”
He is under no illusions on what the Blitzboks can expect from Japan, their first opponents.
“We played them in Las Vegas early last month and won 26-0, but they had us under pressure at times,” said Powell.
“They use the rush defence well and I see they have some guys from Pacific Islander origin that played for them in the past back in the team.”
Powell said they will need to get their focus right for the match: “We only play at six o’clock in the evening (Hong Kong time), so it becomes a long day waiting to get started. It is important to be switched on when the game kicks-off.”
Meanwhile, Blitzboks midfielder Stedman Gans said he is keen to improve on his growing maturity as playmaker and leader in the team, with his status in the squad having changed from “asking the questions” to “providing the answers”.
"Yes, my role has changed a bit; the younger guys are now where I was a year or so ago, asking a lot of advice and looking for ways to improve. Now I find them coming to me for answers,” Gans chuckled.
Time on the field has been the key to unlock his bigger impact on the squad, so much so that Gans is in the starting line-up every time they take to the field.
“Time on the field gives you confidence and your impact on the ball gets better. The more you play the more you can anticipate and that gives you more time on the ball,” he said, adding that he hopes to be a guiding light again this weekend, albeit in different circumstances.
“Last year we were complete underdogs, this time we arrived here as the team who won the previous tournament (in Canada), and so the expectations will be different. For us though, it is all about starting from zero again and making sure we implement our processes.”
The Springbok Sevens’ Pool A fixtures (SA times):
Friday 5 April
Saturday 6 April
The Blitzboks squad for Hong Kong:
- Ryan Oosthuizen (13 tournaments, 61 matches, 65 points, 13 tries)
- Sako Makata (2 tournaments, 9 matches, 0 points)
- Impi Visser (6 tournaments, 35 matches, 20 points, four tries)
- Chris Dry (66 tournaments; 331 matches, 465 points, 93 tries)
- Werner Kok (43 tournaments, 218 matches, 485 points, 97 tries)
- Kurt-Lee Arendse (one tournament, two matches, 0 points)
- Branco du Preez (67 tournaments, 339 matches, 1120 points; 88 tries, 387 conversions, 1 penalty, 1 drop goal)
- Selvyn Davids (11 tournaments, 53 matches, 237 points, 27 tries, 51 conversions)
- Justin Geduld (42 tournaments; 217 matches, 904 points - 95 tries, 213 conversions, 1 penalty)
- Stedman Gans (15 tournaments, 69 matches, 105 points, 21 tries)
- Siviwe Soyizwapi (captain; 24 tournaments, 124 matches, 385 points, 77 tries)
- Angelo Davids (on debut)
- James Murphy (2 tournaments, 11, 0 points) – official reserve