Whole new ball game

SIMON BORCHARDT, writing in SA Rugby magazine, finds out how the Olympic Games will transform sevens rugby.

It’s raining when I arrive at the Springbok Sevens base at Stellenbosch University. Paul Treu is on the C rugby field, conducting an early morning training session with his U18 players. They go through various drills, including one that requires the ball-carrier to run into a tackle bag and spin out of the ‘tackle’. After ending the session at 8:30, Treu walks over and shakes my hand. He says we can chat in his office at the team’s HQ – a house behind the field that looks like a varsity dorm.

In the entrance hall are two giant framed photos of the Bok Sevens team celebrating their 2008 World Series tournament wins in Dubai and George. Underneath them, spread across a desk, are Saru salary slips, which the senior players will pick up when they arrive for training later this morning.

Treu’s office – on your left as you walk through the front door – is nothing fancy.There are a couple of rugby photos on the walls and a laptop on the desk, which he sits behind.

After some small talk about the recent George Sevens – where South Africa won the Plate after losing to England in the Cup quarters – I get to the point. Is sevens taken seriously enough by the rugby world and what does the future hold for the ‘fast and fun’ format?

Treu leans back in his chair and answers both questions by referring to the International Rugby Board’s Regulation 9, which begins: ‘A [national] union has first and last call upon the availability of a player for selection and appearances for a national representative team or national squad of that union.’ While this ruling has always only applied to the 15-man game, the IRB recently amended it to include Olympic sevens so that the world’s best rugby players will go to the world’s biggest sports event.

‘It’s going to be a whole new ball game,’ says Treu with a smile. ‘The IRB was never going to allow understrength teams to compete at the Olympics. It fought hard for years to get sevens into the Olympics on the basis that the best players would take part, and knows it has to make the most of this opportunity or the IOC [International Olympic Committee] will drop sevens from the programme after the 2020 Games.’

Regulation 9 also covers Olympic qualifying tournaments, and in 2014 there will be continental/regional qualifiers followed by a repechage competition that will give unsuccessful teams one more chance. Treu says South Africa can’t afford to be involved in the latter.

‘Sevens has become very competitive – look at how teams like Portugal [who beat England in Dubai last December] and Russia have progressed. A couple of years ago, you had two weak opponents in your [World Series] pool. Now there’s just one, so you have to play well just to reach the [Cup] quarter-finals. We must qualify for the Olympics through the African tournament, because who knows who we could meet in the repechage stage.’

The Olympic qualifiers, and the Rio Games itself, may seem a long way off, but Treu’s preparations have already begun. An SA Sevens U18 team will take part in this year’s Commonwealth Youth Games in the Isle of Man and he hopes some of those players will be Bok Sevens regulars by 2016. The last ever Sevens World Cup is scheduled for Russia in 2013 (the IRB told the IOC it would scrap the World Cup if sevens was admitted to the Olympics), with the Youth Olympics, senior Commonwealth Games and Olympic qualifiers all in 2014.

‘Everything we do in those events will be geared towards the Olympics. We want a medal in 2016 and a gold medal in 2020,’ says Treu, who is looking to South Africa’s best swimmers for inspiration.

‘I attended a swimming camp in Durban in January to see how Chad le Clos and the rest of our junior swimmers prepare for multi-sport events. Their coach, Graham Hill, has been coaching Chad since he was nine. Last year, Chad won gold at the Youth Olympics, Commonwealth Games and in Dubai, but few people know it took him nine years of blood, sweat and tears. It’s this kind of sacrifice and hard graft that attracted me to the sport.

‘South African swimmers are our most successful and consistent performers at multi-sport events and I want to tap into their mentality. Cameron van der Burgh [who claimed two golds at the Commonwealth Games] is another swimmer whose self-confidence helps him to win races even before they’ve started.’

It’s Regulation 9, though, that will really help the Blitzboks to mount a serious medal challenge in 2016, especially if another amendment is made that allows coaches to pick their best teams for the World Series (currently made up of eight tournaments).

‘I’ve heard the IRB is thinking about it, but I don’t think players will ever be released for the whole thing,’ says Treu. ‘Fifteens    will always be the top priority for the IRB and national unions, because it generates virtually all of the game’s income and there are sponsors and broadcasters to consider.

I think we could end up with a compromise situation whereby southern hemisphere teams pick their best players for the World Series tournaments at the end of their season [December to February] and the northern hemisphere does the same [March to May].

‘The provinces and clubs would be compensated financially for those players,’ Treu continues, ‘but the IRB won’t amend Regulation 9 again without discussing it with its stakeholders, including 15s coaches. Hopefully we can come to an agreement that will satisfy everyone, and ensure that both forms of the game flourish.’

However, it’s worth remembering that national sevens coaches wouldn’t have to raid the 15s game too much if they had a settled group of world-class sevens specialists. For years, a sevens contract has been regarded as a consolation prize for players who can’t get one in 15s, but this is slowly changing.

‘Last year, I turned down offers from the Bulls and Sharks,’ says former WP scrumhalf Paul Delport, who I chat to before the seniors’ training session. ‘I love playing sevens, and I think it’s harder on the body than 15s. We have five pre-seasons a year [because of how the World Series is structured], so you smash your body five times. We’ve had 15s players train with us and they suffer. One guy told me he couldn’t handle the required fitness and intensity.’

Delport admits his decision to stick with sevens was also influenced by money.

‘From 1999 until recently, a Bok Sevens player on an A-category contract would earn R30 000 a month, with B and C players getting R20 000 and R10 000 respectively. To put that into context, a junior player at the Bulls earns R30 000. As a sevens player, you’d ask a bank for a home loan and they’d laugh at you. Now an A-category Bok Sevens player gets R50 000 a month, with B and C category salaries of R40 000 and R30 000 respectively.

‘But I was chatting to [Saru managing director] Andy Marinos the other day,’ Delport continues, ‘and we agreed that sevens has to reach a point where the national coach can go to someone like Gio Aplon, who’s perfectly suited to sevens and actually prefers it to 15s, and say: “You are earning X in 15s. Come play sevens and we will match it.”’

At the moment, though, Treu struggles to retain his best players. Last year he lost Ryno Benjamin and Fabian Juries (a sevens specialist with 179 World Series tries) to the Free State Cheetahs, and ex-captain Mzwandile Stick and Mpho Mbiyozo to the EP Kings.

‘We told them we’d match what they’d been offered, but they had won the [2008-09] World Series and basically done it all in sevens,’ says Treu. ‘Sevens players don’t earn as much as their 15s counterparts, although that gap has narrowed and some of our guys from smaller unions like Border actually make more money from playing sevens.’

Treu credits Saru for this improved state of affairs. It doubled the Bok Sevens player budget last year, allowing the squad to be increased from 16 to 23 so that there’s adequate injury cover and real competition for places. However, he admits more money is needed, and a third-party deal – like the one involving a sponsor that allowed the Force to sign Matt Giteau – would help him to attract top talent.

But for now, Treu has to develop his own. This season he’s working hard with a group of youngsters – including SA Schools stars William Small-Smith, Tshotsho Mbovane, Paul Jordaan and Craig Barry – who have been given two-year contracts.

‘A couple of them may decide to stick with sevens when their contracts expire,’ says Treu. ‘What’s important for us is that we now have a feeder system. We’ve signed these U18s and this year we will create an U16 elite squad, so when the first group has moved into their second year a new group will start their first.’

In more good news for the coach, an U18 Craven Week-type sevens tournament is set to be launched in September or October.

‘It’ll be great for us to be able to select players who are suited to sevens but don’t get picked for 15s provincial age-group teams and then fall through the cracks,’ he says.

Treu also wants a high-profile senior provincial tournament, similar to the defunct Winfield Sevens that used to be played two or three weeks before the Hong Kong Sevens in the ’90s and involved the country’s top provincial players. The national selectors picked the squad for Hong Kong based on players’ performances there, which is why the likes of Joost van der Westhuizen and Bob Skinstad played at the 1997 Sevens World Cup.

‘South Africa needs a proper domestic sevens competition again, but Saru would have to give the unions and players an incentive to take part, as is the case with the Vodacom Cup [where the winners get R1 million],’ says Treu. ‘Perhaps it could be played in January, after the George Sevens and before Super Rugby.

‘We need to be patient, though,’ he adds after a lengthy pause. ‘There’s no doubt in my mind that the Olympics will take sevens to a new level. The rest will follow.’

– This article first appeared in the March issue of SA Rugby magazine. The April issue will be on sale from 16 March.
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