Pushing the boundaries

Springbok Sevens coach Paul Treu talks to SA Rugby magazine about their World Series title defence.

Paul TreuWhat are your goals for the 2009-10 season?
We focus more on our process goals than on the outcome. Our primary goal is what we do on a daily basis, because it’s important to have consistency throughout the season. However, last year we won the first two Sevens World Series tournaments in Dubai and George for the first time, so obviously the expectations will be higher now. Those same tournaments will be the priority for us at the start of the season.

How are you feeling about your team’s recent performances?
We are a team ahead of schedule. We were only expecting to win the series this season. Our goals have changed because of our success. The guys want to leave a legacy, but we can’t only win one series and call ourselves the best. The team’s motto is the ‘pioneers of greatness’ – we are the first South African team to win the World Series title and we want to be the first to retain it.

How do you plan to improve from last year?
When I spoke to the players earlier in the pre-season, I saw that they were still hungry for more success. We aren’t even close to our best and we haven’t achieved all our goals yet. Our main goal is to keep pushing the boundaries and keep lifting the standards. We need to test ourselves every day.

How has the squad changed this season?
We have contracted two new players – Cecil Afrika from the Griffons and MJ Mentz from the Pumas. MJ played for us about three seasons ago, and it’s good to have him back. Cecil is an exciting player and I believe he’s going to be a superstar on the sevens circuit this season. But we have been battling to finalise our squad after losing so many players, especially guys like Robert Ebersohn, Lionel Mapoe, Philip Snyman and Gio Aplon. I’m still looking for new players to recruit, but at this stage it’s difficult to find what we need. We do have a few players in mind but they have to be invited to the camp first and only then will we be able to analyse whether or not they’ll be able to make it.

What factors are making your squad selections so difficult?
The experienced sevens players have raised the standards to such a level that it’s tough for new players to meet those requirements from the start. Our players were in the system for a long period of time before they were in the position to win the series. So it takes time to find new players.

Will Vuyo Zangqa be able to play again?
Luckily they managed to save his eye after his car accident, but the chances of his sight returning are slim. I doubt he will ever play rugby again, but we will definitely keep him in the system in a managerial and consultancy capacity. We are sending a team to Sri Lanka for an IRB Asian series a week before the Dubai tournament and he will be part of the management team there. We will need players like him to plough his experience back into the system and help develop new inexperienced players.

What preparations did the team go through in the pre-season?
We gave the players a few weeks off after a demanding season, then we went to the World Games in Taiwan and we took part in the Namibian Sevens tournament. That was important for us because we got the opportunity to play against competitive teams like Samoa, Fiji and Zimbabwe. It’s difficult for us to get quality competition, so we are grateful for those kinds of opportunities. We have also been training at the Sports Science Institute in Newlands and at our base in Stellenbosch. After that we competed in two more tournaments [Middelburg and Singapore Cricket Club Sevens] before the World Series opener in Dubai.

Have you brought in any experts this season?
In addition to Coenie de Villiers – the mixed martial arts expert who helped us last year – we’ve brought in Miyan Solomons, who’s a boxer. This brings something new to training sessions and prevents practices from getting stale. He helps our players with their conditioning as well as their foot work and hand-eye co-ordination.

How do players’ commitments to the Springbok Sevens squad work?
Super 14 squads have first preference, and any player outside the Super 14 squads is eligible for a sevens call-up. If a player falls out of a Super 14 squad, he can’t commit to sevens as he may be called back again, which is what happened with Gio. I don’t like these deals because we can’t afford to have a player in a tournament one week, and then lose him because of his Super 14 commitments when we travel to a tournament the following week. We are looking at players in the sevens, U19 and U21 provincial competitions, Club Champs, Varsity Cup, and the Currie Cup. This way, we can approach players who’ll be able to give their full commitment to the squad. Once they are contracted, they will commit to us.

Are you disappointed that some players still see the Super 14 as a bigger opportunity than Springbok Sevens?
I’m not disappointed. Some players use sevens as a stepping stone to bigger opportunities. We have a core group of players in the squad who specialise in sevens, like Frankie Horne, Renfred Dazel and Ryno Benjamin. But we are also identifying young talent in South Africa, like Lionel and Robert, and they move on to the Super 14. These players have Springbok ambitions and we can’t deny them that.

You’ve been part of the sevens rugby circuit since 1998, first as a player and now as a coach. How has the game evolved over the past decade?
I’m one of five people on the circuit who has been involved in the game since 1998. The game has grown so much in the past 11 years. In one pre-season a player came for a trial with us and he couldn’t believe that sevens was so structured. The thing is the game has become a lot more physical than it used to be. A lot of teams try the ‘cat and mouse’ type of game plan to avoid contact and think sevens rugby is all about flair. But when it comes to the top levels, these teams will never be consistent. The best teams know that hard work, defence and physicality also play a role.

Who will pose the biggest threat to South Africa this season?
New Zealand are eight-time champions, so they will be top contenders. Fiji have also been one of the more consistent teams and England have come back big time. I think Australia are the most improved team on the circuit. So they will all be major threats.

What tournament do you really want to win this season?
Hong Kong, definitely. It is regarded as the biggest tournament of the season. We have been in three finals since 1997 but have never won it. So winning that one would be special.

What does the addition of sevens to the Olympics from 2016 mean to world rugby?
That is something we all fought so hard for. We wanted to get sevens rugby recognised as a sport in its own right. We also wanted to get rugby back into the Olympics, which is the biggest sporting event in the world. So it was a major achievement.

Are you disappointed to see the Sevens World Cup scrapped because of this?
Not really. The World Series has become so competitive, you can hardly distinguish between a normal tournament and the World Cup. So many top teams focus so much on winning the series, that winning the World Cup has become a bonus. In a few years’ time no one is going to remember that Wales won the last World Cup. But everyone will know South Africa won the World Series in 2009 and everyone will remember the team that wins the Olympics in 2016.

Considering the importance of Olympic glory in 2016, would you select the strongest possible team or will you show your loyalty to the sevens specialists?
A sevens coach won’t be able to exclude the best players in the country – he would be stupid if he did. There’s no doubt South Africa will need our best possible team at the Olympics if we want to win a gold medal. Springboks such as Heinrich Brüssow and Ryan Kankowski have been involved in sevens before and they know how to win tournaments. We are also starting to identify players from the High Performance Programme – at the U16, U18 and U20 levels. These players will be future Springboks and the programme will help develop their game with the necessary skills to excel in sevens rugby.

How has Saru helped in the squad’s progression?
They provided us with our base in Stellenbosch two years ago. They have also given us financial support and ensured that the squad had good management, structures and other facilities. Every year there is improvement and the door is always open when we need help. Their support has been phenomenal.

Should South Africa’s sevens tournament be held in George every year?
George has established itself as an awesome venue on the international sevens circuit. It has a special atmosphere and the people are very supportive of the team. It shouldn’t move to anywhere else in South Africa as the intensity of sevens is so high that matches need to be played at sea level and there are limited venues on the coast. George has become synonymous with sevens rugby, just like Hong Kong and Wellington. But it’s an executive decision, not mine.

SARU1209cv001What are your ambitions as a coach?
My personal career path has been influenced by rugby’s inclusion in the Olympics. I started something unique, so I would like to see it through. If an opportunity to coach a 15-man team arises, I might consider it, but I’d like to stay with the Springbok Sevens side for as long as I can.

By Gareth Duncan

– This article first appeared in the December issue of SA Rugby magazine. Click here to subscribe