South Africa, the reigning HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series champions, opened their new season last weekend by storming to victory in the Dubai desert. The second stop is in Cape Town this weekend, and the Blitzboks are strong favourites to chalk up another maximum 22 points. Can anyone stop them?
In fact, South Africa don’t have a fantastic record on home turf: of the 18 previous tournaments the hosts have won just four times. However, when one considers the proud rugby nation’s recent form it is a different story.
The Blitzboks have reached the final in all four of the last competitions at home, and won three of them. It is no coincidence that Neil Powell became head coach in late 2013 and his team’s winning performances – home and away – soon followed.
Powell, a Blizbokke captain in his playing days, oversaw two tournament victories at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth in 2013 and 2014, both against New Zealand (17-14 followed by 26-17). And then at the inaugural HSBC Cape Town 7s in 2015 (29-14 versus Argentina). Twelve months ago they were on course for a fourth-consecutive win at home, but England pipped them 19-17 in a sensational finale.
Under Powell, 39, South Africa have won the 2014 Commonwealth Games – they will defend that title next year – and last season were crowned HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series champions for the first time since 2009. Given their recent rich vein of dominant form it would be more of a shock if they fail to go all the way in Cape Town this time around.
Without doubt the team’s golden run has elevated interest in sevens in South Africa. Indeed, even though South Africa fell at the final hurdle to England 12 months ago that didn’t in any way halt interest in this year’s HSBC Cape Town 7s; 110,000 tickets across the two days were all sold in less than hours when they were released in July.
That the Blitzboks’ winning streak comes at a time when the nation’s XVs side is struggling serves to amplify their achievements. In November, the Blitzboks were named South African Sports Team of the Year. South Africa Rugby president Mark Alexander said the side “have not only captured the very competitive Sevens Series crown, they also captured the hearts and minds of all South African sports lovers with their success”.
Should more success follow this weekend and later on this season – which includes an opportunity to win a maiden World Cup crown, after the Commonwealth Games defence – then more young rugby players than ever before will unquestionably be inspired to emulate their sevens heroes.
On paper South Africa to have an easy route to the quarter-finals this weekend, given that Powell’s team face Kenya, France and Russia in Pool A at the HSBC Cape Town 7s. There are plenty of other tasty match ups in the other groups. In Pool B there will be a trans-Tasman clash between New Zealand and Australia, while the Americans would also fancy their chances of reaching the last eight.
Elsewhere on Saturday, defending HSBC Cape Town 7s champions England have an equally tough run in Pool C, facing Scotland and Argentina; and as Uganda proved in Dubai they are no pushovers. In Pool D Olympic champions Fiji tackle near neighbours Samoa, as well as Canada and Wales, who on their day could go all the way.
Whoever triumphs – and few would bet against the hosts – it promises to be a brilliant weekend of rugby sevens in Cape Town, as the sport continues to reach new heights.