Specman: I’m the player I am today because of sevens

Rosko Specman is showing no signs of slowing down as he continues to embrace new challenges at the Cheetahs, writes JON CARDINELLI in the latest SA Rugby magazine.

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The match-winner and the entertainer. Rosko Specman has embraced these roles wholeheartedly over the course of his decorated career – and the rugby world has reaped the benefits.

Specman is already one of the great sevens players, having won two World Rugby Sevens Series titles as well as an Olympic bronze medal with the Blitzboks. The chances are good that Specman will be remembered as much for his electrifying style of play as the glory he’s brought to South Africa in the shape of trophies and medals.

Whether he’s challenging teammates to a dance-off only moments before kickoff, or dancing in the end zone after scoring a spectacular try, Specman is determined to enjoy himself. And even at this late stage of his career, the dual-code star hasn’t lost his passion for sport.

Specman tells SA Rugby magazine about his unfinished business in the 15-man game. At the same time, he is determined to cap his stellar sevens career with an Olympic Games gold medal and possibly a World Cup title on home soil.

Titles aside, he remains passionate about his dual role as a match-winner and entertainer. Specman wants to win, yet he also wants to give fans a reason to smile.

‘That’s the idea behind Speckmagic,’ he says of a nickname that doubles as a philosophy.

It comes from a teammate at Kingswood College in 2008, describing one of his searing runs. ‘I didn’t think much of it. But the name stuck,’ he recalls. ‘Now it’s something I embrace and try to live up to every game. I tell myself I have to go out there and make something happen.

‘You can’t go through the motions and assume you will get another chance to make something happen – or that you get another chance to play the following week. Now or never – that’s my motto.’

Specman was determined to make a name for himself in fifteens and to rise through the ranks to play for the Springboks. Over a period of 10 years, however, he enjoyed relatively few opportunities at the highest level, turning out for the Pumas between 2013 and 2015, and then for the Cheetahs in 2017.

He reached the top of the sevens game during this period, yet never lost the desire to make an impact in fifteens. Specman dazzled for the Bulls as the franchise improved steadily over the 2019 season. As he watched smaller players like Cheslin Kolbe light up the 2019 World Cup, he was convinced more than ever that he had more to give.

‘Players shouldn’t be boxed into either category of the game,’ says Specman. Kolbe also won bronze with the Blitzboks at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and has gone on to become one of the best players in the 15-man game. If the Olympic Games in Tokyo did not clash with the British & Irish Lions tour this July, Kolbe would have pushed for inclusion in the Blitzboks squad.

‘The great thing about the World Cup, and the final against England in particular, was that it showed how valuable those players are on the big stage,’ Specman says. ‘Yes, it can be tight in the forwards and aerial contests have their place – but there are moments where you need someone to take advantage of space.

‘Cheslin did that in the final. He saw the space, and was quick and smart enough to exploit it. His skill and experience allowed him to do that. Size had nothing to do with it.’

The pandemic and ensuing lockdown aside, 2020 was an especially challenging year for Specman. Jake White took over as the Bulls director of rugby and opted to cut a number of players. Specman, in spite of his previous contributions, was deemed surplus to requirements.

‘Look, I don’t want to dwell on the past or speak badly about those involved,’ he says. ‘At the time, I was very disappointed. Jake didn’t see me as part of his plans. The way I found out was not ideal.

‘But I moved on quickly. I couldn’t change Jake’s mind, because the decision was made. I focused on the next opportunity. You know what they say: when one door closes another one opens. You have to man up in that situation. I told myself I would make the most of any opportunity. Every game would represent a chance to prove myself, to change a game, to give people some magic.’

Two days after receiving the news, Specman got a call from the Cheetahs. What’s more, his excellent form in 2019 and 2020 was rewarded when he was included in the Springbok training group ahead of the local trial game at Newlands.

‘That was a great experience. For the first time, I was given a clear idea of what it takes to be a Springbok. I got the chance to work with those Bok coaches and players. It was an eye-opener.

‘I watched how Lukhanyo Am communicated with his players and organised the defence. It forced me to think about things in a different way – and to take what I learned back to the Cheetahs. Those are the experiences that boost you as a player.’

After the Super Rugby Unlocked and Currie Cup tournaments, a preparation series was staged before the Rainbow Cup. The Cheetahs participated in the warm-up matches, even though they will play no part in the Rainbow Cup or the subsequent Pro16. That said, the central franchise may eventually compete in the International Shield and subsequently the European Challenge Cup – feeder competitions to the European Champions Cup.

The setback has not doused the franchise’s penchant for flair and innovation. The Cheetahs still boast several big names, with World Cup-winners such as Ruan Pienaar and Frans Steyn opting to finish their careers in Bloemfontein. Specman is another superstar who has given the plucky side an edge in recent times.

The Stormers hosted the Cheetahs in their first official home game at the Cape Town Stadium on 27 February. Specman – who has enjoyed much success at the ground in previous outings for the Blitzboks – scored a hat-trick as the visitors clinched a 34-33 victory.

‘Every time I go to the Cape Town Stadium, it feels like I’m going home,’ he says. The South African leg of the World Sevens Series has been staged at this ground since 2015, and Specman has become one of the local darlings.

‘I told the Cheetahs before we arrived, “Don’t worry guys … This is my house. I got this.” Over the years, I’ve developed a real connection with that ground after playing there many times for the Blitzboks. It’s got to the point where I draw energy from being there.

‘I missed the fans, of course,’ he says of the lack of atmosphere in the recent preparation fixture, when spectators were barred due to Covid-19 regulations.

‘When that stadium is full, it’s really inspiring. You want to go out there and produce something special for everyone. Hopefully I will have that chance at the end of the year when the Sevens Series concludes in Cape Town. Hopefully the crowds will be back.’

Blitzboks coach Neil Powell spoke to Specman about his future at the start of the season. While he looked to be in fine form during the preparations series, his focus will shift to sevens as he builds towards the Olympic Games in Tokyo.

How is it possible that Specman is not fit enough, and ultimately not good enough, to make the grade at this stage? He laughs when he’s asked the question, and explains the different demands of sevens and fifteens.

‘The way we defend is very different. In fifteens, we all come up in a line and I just have to keep my shape. In sevens, we defend in groups of three and it can be very technical. There are a lot of small things to be aware of, and if you get something wrong, it can be very costly.

‘The fitness training is what sets the two apart. You’re preparing yourself for intense periods of play in sevens. You’re preparing yourself for the challenge of playing up to three games a day. Your intensity, and then your ability to recover quickly, is everything. I will have to get myself back into sevens shape if I’m going to match up to the youngsters in the squad.’

Sevens specialist Kurt-Lee Arendse made a successful transition from sevens to fifteens. Cornal Hendricks and Kolbe – who play for the Bulls and Toulouse respectively – have represented South Africa in both codes.

And yet, as Specman explains, it’s not as easy to move between codes as some may believe.

‘I started out as a fifteens player, but it’s in the shorter format where I made a name for myself. I’m the player I am today because of sevens. All my skills and decision-making abilities have been honed in that environment. I’ve learned how to look for space, to look for the mis-matches, to sum up situations.

‘Having said that, only a certain bunch have the skills to move between the codes – particularly from fifteens to sevens, given the demands in the shorter game. I’m grateful that I can play both. I don’t want to limit myself.’

Specman remembers the bonds that were formed when the Blitzboks won back-to-back Sevens Series titles in 2017 and 2018. He wants to be part of a special team once more, and he wants to be part of a South African side that wins Olympic gold.

‘That Blitzboks group was together for close to three years before we won the first title in 2016-17. It was clear how well everyone knew each other as people and teammates. Everyone had a good idea about roles and responsibilities, whether it was Chris Dry going to clean the ruck or Branco du Preez moving into space for a pass. We were all operating on the same wavelength.

‘Neil was really big on giving players room to express themselves – and the players did not abuse that responsibility. We played with passion and intent, but we were all part of a bigger plan. Some of those players have moved on but the values and intent remain the same.

‘Getting into the squad and winning a gold medal … those are my priorities. However, there’s a lot of sevens to be played over the next year or so and I realise what a great opportunity I could have with South Africa.

‘We know what it feels like when the country is behind us. There is pressure to succeed, of course, but it’s a good kind of pressure.’

Indeed, Rosko Specman isn’t about to swap his signature style of play for something more conservative.

‘You have to make time for the fun,’ he says. ‘We train hard and we play hard, but ultimately we are there to enjoy ourselves.

‘Sometimes we have a little dance-off before we run out on to the field. It gets the juices flowing. It relaxes us and gets us into the right mental space.

‘Neil enjoys it when he sees us like that. He tells us that a happy team is a dangerous team. He knows our opponents are in trouble when we’re in the space where we just want to jol. That’s when the magic happens.’

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Craig Lewis