Sevens system deserves unreserved dues

South Africa’s sevens players are quickly proving they can make it big in the 15-man game, writes SIMNIKIWE XABANISA in the latest SA Rugby magazine.

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The post-Covid Currie Cup was supposed to make for captivating viewing not only because the South African rugby public had been starved of live rugby, but also because for the first time in years the Springboks would be playing.

Thanks to SA Rugby’s decision to avoid the mugging that would have been the Springboks’ Rugby Championship defence by withdrawing the team from the competition because it was palpably not ready for international rugby, sprinkling the Currie Cup – which was becoming an afterthought – with the gold dust of world champions was exactly what the oldest domestic tournament needed.

But while the proposed stars of the show continue to shake off the lockdown rust a few weeks into the campaign, the players who seem to have hijacked the spotlight are the Blitzboks players, whose immediate playing prospects have been suspended indefinitely.

That has allowed some players to play for the fifteens teams to which they are contracted, join others on loan, or strike out in the direction of the longer format of the game altogether.

Because of the miracles the Blitzboks perform in the World Rugby Sevens Series every year, the rugby community likes to think they’ve replaced the Cheetahs as their second-favourite rugby team in the country.

But there always tend to be broad hints that when it comes to it, we don’t really trust them in our fifteens teams. A great example is how Blitzboks legend Cecil Afrika couldn’t get a contract domestically after his forced retirement from sevens.

Yet the likes of Stedman Gans, Rosko Specman, Kurt-Lee Arendse, Werner Kok and, to a lesser extent, Angelo Davids have been doing their bit to establish the narrative about sevens being the ultimate rugby finishing school doing the rounds.

The peerless Gans – long rated as a generational player – has simply exploded on the 15-man game. At 1.80m and 85kg he’s not your typical South African outside centre (think Jaque Fourie and Lukhanyo Am) dimensions-wise, but man has he been fun to watch igniting what most expected to be a stale Bulls attack.

The 23-year-old has been all rugby intellect, erudite running lines mixed with the odd intoxicating step en route to scoring four tries from four matches, while Specman – ironically newly rejected by the Bulls for lack of imposing physicality – has picked up from where he left off in last year’s Super Rugby season, this time for the Cheetahs.

If Specman is the devil we know, Arendse, a wing’s wing, is the devil we’re finding out about thanks to some scorching touchline runs for the Pretoria side, as the Sharks defence from Superfan Saturday will attest.

The lightning quick Davids (10.5-sec in the 100m) has largely been on the Stormers’ fringes while playing for the Western Province U21 side, but his sevens grounding – which showed itself in a hat-trick against the Cheetahs – has made him look a man among boys.

Sevens players are increasingly becoming more in demand because of what a complete package they are by the time they come out of the Blitzboks base in Stellenbosch. Because you famously can’t hide in sevens, you have to do everything by yourself.

Forget the sadistic strength and conditioning programme – Gio Aplon and Robert Ebersohn are rumoured to have once told team management they didn’t know how much more punishment they could take – at sevens you work on all aspects of your game, like passing both ways, one-on-one defending and the breakdown.

If you want obvious examples of the kind of all-round players the sevens system can produce look no further than Springbok winger and World Cup final try scorer Cheslin Kolbe, and Bulls utility back Cornal Hendricks, who can play at least three positions in the backline.

It’s time we gave the sevens game its unreserved dues.

*This column first appeared in the latest SA Rugby magazine, now on sale!

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Photo: Lee Warren/Gallo Images