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 HSBC 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 3 March, took the field for the first time wearing the Springbok Sevens jersey in Dubai.
♦ This weekend in Vancouver Afrika would love to be on the winning side again when the Blitzboks tackle the world’s best with one change to the match-12 that won in Los Angeles last weekend.
Coach Neil Powell swopped the roles of Mfundo Ndhlovu and JC Pretorius for this weekend's HSBC Canada Sevens, with Ndhlovu promoted to a first appearance in the 2020 HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, while Pretorius arrive at BC Place in Vancouver as the official reserve player.
“JC has played in every tournament and has clocked the most minutes of everyone in the squad, so he will be managed a bit this weekend,” said Powell.
♦ But back to South Africa’s leading point scorer of all time in this form of the game.
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 insisted on meeting 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 off 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.”
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.”
Stats facts: Afrika's 1452 points came from 177 tries, 282 conversions and one penalty goal. He is just two tries away of equaling the tally of 179 tries of Fabian Juries, a fellow Eastern Cape-native who inspired Afrika as a young player. Seabelo Senatla tops the try-scoring record for the Blitzboks (with 230 tries), followed by Juries and Afrika.
Vancouver tournaments facts –
The Springbok Sevens squad for the Canada Sevens
1. Angelo Davids (five tournaments, 26 matches; 80 points, 163 tries)
2. Ryan Oosthuizen (20 tournaments, 101 matches; 100 points, 20 tries)
3. Chris Dry (73 tournaments, 367 matches; 485 points, 97 tries)
4. Sako Makata (eight tournaments, 30 matches; 15 points, three tries)
5. Werner Kok (50 tournaments, 255 matches; 540 points, 108 tries)
6. Mfundo Ndhlovu (four tournaments, 17 matches; 25 points, five tries))
7. Branco du Preez (74 tournaments, 374 matches; 1332 points, 96 tries, 423 conversions, 1 penalty, 1 drop goal)
8. Selvyn Davids (19 tournaments, 96 matches; 395 points, 40 tries, 96 conversions, 1 penalty)
9. Kurt-Lee Arendse (seven tournaments, 31 matches; 65 points, 13 tries)
10. Cecil Afrika (65 tournaments, 339 matches; 1452 points, 177 tries, 282 conversions, 1 penalty)
11. Muller du Plessis (13 tournaments, 57 matches; 185 points, 37 tries)
12. Stedman Gans (captain; 21 tournaments, 100 matches; 160 points, 32 tries)
13. JC Pretorius (10 tournaments, 54 matches, 120 points, 24 tries – official reserve
The Blitzboks’ playing schedule
The Vancouver pools
A: South Africa, England, Argentina, Japan
B: Fiji, France, Canada, Wales
C: New Zealand, Ireland, Spain, Kenya
D: Australia, USA, Samoa, Scotland
Issued by SA Rugby Communications