SA’s new sevens plan

The Springbok Sevens side finished sixth in the last World Series and third at the Commonwealth Games, but coach Paul Treu is optimistic about the future, writes ANDY CAPOSTAGNO in SA Rugby magazine.

Paul Treu could be forgiven for groaning out loud when the draw for the first tournament of the 2010-11 Sevens World Series was announced at the end of October. That’s because the South African’s current bête noir, Australia, came out of the hat to join the Blitzboks in Pool B in Dubai.

Australia beat South Africa in the semi-finals of the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi in October and have lost just once to Treu’s team in their last six meetings. Happily, the one South African victory happened to be in Dubai last year, but 2010 has largely been a year to forget for the Blitzboks.

After winning their first-ever World Series title in 2008-09, Treu’s charges only finished sixth on the log the following season. This season’s defending champions are Samoa, while New Zealand won the gold medal at the Commonwealth Games. Injuries and moves into 15-a-side deprived South Africa of nearly all their hard won experience and under those circumstances, Treu was delighted to return from India with a bronze medal.

‘I think we’ve got to be happy, especially when you consider that most of those players played their first-ever sevens tournaments in Middelburg and Rustenburg a month before the Commonwealth Games in Delhi. Now they’re on the world stage and up against national players from the Wallabies and the All Blacks so it’s an amazing achievement really for these young boys.

‘Renfred Dazel was the only member of the squad who played in the last Commonwealth Games in Melbourne and the same group will stay together for the World Series tournaments in Dubai and George, so the future is looking good because a lot of them are still under 21.’

Among those missing due to injury were Frankie Horne (broken hand), Kyle Brown (hamstring), Stephen Hunt (knee ligaments) and Branco du Preez (shoulder). In addition, Mzwandile Stick, a former captain and playmaker, made the successful transition to 15-a-side that his talent has always suggested (Stick was at fullback for the EP Kings when they won the Currie Cup First Division title). So Treu was forced to dig deep into his playing resources and hope for the best in New Delhi.

The team won its opening four matches against Tonga, India and Wales in the group phase and then against Scotland in the quarter-finals. New boy Sibusiso Sithole scored a hat-trick on debut against India, and going into the semi-final against Australia the team had conceded just two tries in four starts.

‘I’ve been telling teams for years that defence wins you games and ultimately tournaments. I think we can be proud of the effort,’ says Treu. ‘The game against Scotland was really tough and if we hadn’t made a try-saving tackle at the end we would have missed out on a medal. Ryno Benjamin, Neil Powell and Cecil Afrika working back saved the day. Sometimes you need a bit of luck and we had it against Scotland.’

Sithole saw a new aspect of the game against the Scots.

‘Sibusiso got burnt in the quarter-final by one of the quickest players on the circuit, Andrew Turnbull, and I told him to keep his head up because even the best players get beaten sometimes,’ says Treu. ‘You’re bound to make mistakes; it’s about how you learn from them.’

Given the transient nature of coaching in South Africa it’s remarkable to think that Treu is about to enter his eighth season in charge of the Blitzboks. At the start of his first season he was still playing under the care of Chester Williams. But Williams signed to coach the Cats and the temporary position became a permanent one.

The team showed a gradual improvement under Treu, finishing as runners-up to New Zealand in 2007-08. That was the season Saru chose to contract players to the sevens squad for the first time and to base them in Stellenbosch. The reward was the  breakthrough season that came in 2008-09, when the Blitzboks won the World Series for the first time.

‘That was the culmination of a four-year plan and we’re at the beginning of a new one right now,’ says Treu. ‘Saru is buying into the plan. It’s the first time we’ve been allowed to sign schoolboys and that’s a sign that Saru sees value in building for the future. Saru understands that we are in a rebuilding process and most of the guys we’ve taken on have signed two-year contracts so that will smooth the way for us down the line.

‘Next year we’ll be working hard with the U16s and the U20s and some of our players are already with the SA U18 High Performance squad. What we would like to do is keep them in the system and keep exposing them to our culture and to international competition. Then they will learn what is required to win at international level.

‘We’re going to send an U18 team to the 2011 Junior Commonwealth Games and then in 2014 the Commonwealth Games are in Scotland. Those are the kinds of events that will allow us to plan for the 2016 Olympics.’

Treu sees a clear difference between the World Series and multisport events. He also believes that the belated admission of sevens to the Olympics will change the sport forever.

‘The venues in Delhi might have been a bit empty, but the experience of the village for my guys was amazing; just to be around so many athletes from other codes, especially our South African medallists like Cameron van der Burgh and Chris Harmse. Chatting to those guys about what inspired them to become the best in the world and what drives them is what a multisport event is all about.

‘Now that there will be Olympic funding for sevens, the landscape of the game is going to change and a lot of countries will become much more competitive. From our perspective, in December I’ve got four schoolboys joining the group. The long-term plan is that those guys will be 24 or 25 in 2016 and we will put a lot of energy into developing their games before then.’

Before the long-term vision comes the short-term need for positive results and Treu is targeting the first two legs of the World Series.

‘Delhi came at the perfect time for us ahead of the new season and we’ll have momentum going into Dubai and George. We’d like to do well in those two. Dubai has been good to us, so much so that we used it as our camp to prepare for the Commonwealth Games.

‘We always get big support there because there are lots of South African expats, and now the boys know what to expect because they’ve used the facilities, stayed in the hotels and they should be relaxed. But we’d really like to focus on George. We won there in 2008, but last year was disappointing. We lost a number of players to Super 14 contracts, but really, that’s no excuse in your home leg.’

By the time the Blitzboks run out at Outeniqua Park in the first week of December, rugby fans in this country should know whether Peter de Villiers will be taking the Springboks to the 2011 World Cup. Before his promotion to the national side, De Villiers had been here and there in South African rugby, but it would be hard to argue that he had anything like the background that Treu has built up. Which leads on to the key question: is Treu ready to make the transition from sevens to 15s?

There will be some who will claim that 10 seasons of sevens, first as a player and then coach, has painted Treu into a corner. Like the long-serving Gordon Tietjens of New Zealand, he is now only good for one thing, with the positive spin-off being that he is producing talented players for 15-a-side. But look deeper and you’ll see the possibility that Treu could be a major force at the highest level in years to come.

He’s spent a decade under the radar honing a scientific approach to the game. He has become used to having his best players taken away from him from under his nose at crucial times. He has put a system in place that allows newcomers to slot in and perform
at short notice.

‘As a coach you are constantly wondering whether you are doing the right thing and whether it’s time to move on, because sometimes it can be quite frustrating. I’ve just come out of a meeting with Rassie Erasmus where I asked if he could release one or two Western Province players to us. They are part of the U21 squad and they may be part of the Super Rugby squad next year and so the answer was no.

‘I really enjoy sevens and there’s a great feeling right now, because there’s bigger buy-in from Saru and the sponsors than ever before. So I’d like to be involved going forward, but I take it on a day-to-day basis and as long as the team is happy then I’m happy too.

‘Having said that, though, I feel I’m ready to step into 15-a-side and if there happened to be an opportunity at franchise level for me to get involved then I would definitely consider that.’

Is anyone out there listening?

– This article first appeared in the December issue of SA Rugby magazine.