Sevens

Neil Powell speaks on his final season as Blitzboks coach

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Neil Powell. (Photo by Lefty Shivambu/Gallo Images)
Neil Powell. (Photo by Lefty Shivambu/Gallo Images)

Heading into two consecutive Spanish tournaments, at venues in place of Hamilton and Sydney, Neil Powell and his team are looking to begin the coach's last eight months on a note that will conclude his sevens career with a script-written return to Cape Town for the Sevens World Cup.

Powell was appointed as head coach of the Springbok Sevens team in 2013 and has taken the team to countless amounts of circuit wins and historic performances. In 2016, the Blitzboks began two years of dominance under Powell, winning the 2016/17 World Rugby Sevens Series - seeing themselves in the finals on eight occasions, winning five - followed by a 2017/18 gold medal.

On 25 June 2021 it was revealed that this would be Powell's last season with the Blitzboks, before joining the Sharks in Durban. The head coach's final stint will be met fittingly with the Sevens World Cup in Cape Town - the first time South Africa will host a Sevens event since 2019.

Although Powell's finale could result in a fairy tale finish, the defensive mastermind restrains to break down his walls, keeping focus on the tasks at hand and enjoying his final eight months.

"I really want the guys to enjoy the season. It's obviously a big one, we have the World Series, Commonwealth games and then I will finish my coaching career at the Sevens World Cup in Cape Town in September," said Powell.

"Obviously, you would love to finish your career as a coach with wins at the Commonwealth Games, and the World Cup but unfortunately, life is not always a fairy tale and things don't always happen as you think at all.

"I think the main thing for me is I really want to enjoy my last eight months in the system and I would like to players to do the same. I need to see that enjoyment and smiles on the faces every time we come in for training or to play.

"[Cape Town] will be my final tournament as coach of the Blitzboks. After it all, I'll move on to the Sharks [...] Let's hold thumbs and maybe, maybe we'll be blessed and have a good end to the career," added the coach.

Beginning the new year with consecutive series in Spain - making its debut circuit appearance since the World Rugby Sevens Series started way back in 1999 - the green and gold look to control their expectations lit by their success in Dubai at the end of last year and focus on the process instead of winning.

"I think it's easy to say that you want to do the double, but it's a different story when you actually have to go out there and physically do it. I think everybody gets fed up when I say that we only focus on the implementation of the process but if we do that right then the results will look after itself," explained Powell.

"Our focus will definitely not be winning, that's obviously our goal, but that won't be the focus. The focus will always be ourselves and the effort that we put in and how we individually implement our roles to make sure that we look after the system.

"There's a tough pool that we're in so it's going to be tough to get through. I think if we if we let up for even a single game, teams like Scotland who haven't played on a circuit for a while, can surprise you. So we must make sure that we're focused and ready for when that first came starts on Friday."

The first weekend in the UAE last year saw the Blitzboks secure their eighth Dubai 7s title by getting past Australia and Argentina in the knockout stages before cruising by the USA in the final with a 42-7 win.

Just a week later, Powell and his men found themselves in yet another final, but this time against Australia. Despite being down 5-7 after half time, a second try scored by JC Pretorius secured the Blitzboks another tournament win and a ninth Dubai 7s title.

The team has a 100% success rate in the 2022 series, extending their win streak to 24, and the Blitzboks coach is looking forward to welcoming back Wales, Scotland and England to the circuit as he and the team “really like to challenge ourselves by playing against the best to see where we are."

At this time of year, the Sevens Series usually makes its way over to Australia and New Zealand, places that add the challenge of jet lag. Heading to Spain instead this year, the South Africans look to take advantage of the Spanish clock.

"I think the great thing is that we don't travel over many time zones. Normally this time of the year, we would have had the tournaments in New Zealand and Australia where we go over 10 time zones, which obviously makes it difficult to adapt when you get to that time, especially in the short time we have before we start playing."

"So we'll definitely try to use the fact that we're playing in the same time zone to our advantage," added the coach.

Although Powell's approach to Spain hasn't changed, the squad has. Last week he announced five changes to the squad, including playmaker Justin Geduld who will put on the sevens jersey for the first time in two years.

Opting for a more experienced side compared to the outfit that performed in Dubai, Powell is still confident in his squad selection.

"I think it's a squad we're very confident with. I think all five of those players that come into our system were injured or unavailable for Dubai. All of them are quality players and experienced players," said Powell.

"Justin Geduld, Sako Makata, Dewald Human, Mfundo Ndhlovu, and Darren Adonis I think are all very talented players. I think what they will bring to the side is that experience. I mean, Justin has played over 50 tournaments, Dewald Human is probably sitting around about 20 tournaments and the same with Sako Makata.

"I think what those five replacements bring this is definitely a wealth of experience and we will definitely look to rely on their experience to get a good result in this first weekend in Malaga."

The first weekend in Spain will be hosted in Malaga, taking place from 21-23 January at the Estadio Ciudad de Malaga, and the second will see the teams move across Spain to Seville for the fourth round of the series on 28-30 January.

The series leading Blitzboks are in Pool A against England and Scotland, with Fiji missing out due to Covid-19 cases in their camp.

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