Neil Powell’s South African team is desperate to make it third time lucky on home soil this weekend in Cape Town, the second stop in the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series – but their all-time top try-scorer will be watching from the stands.
Having crossed for 224 tries, Seabelo Senatla is currently fourth in the all-time try-scorer list. Last season he chalked up 35 five-pointers in 34 games, but the 2016 World Rugby Sevens Player of the Year is unavailable for selection for the Cape Town tournament, having chosen to focus on developing his 15-a-side career.
The 25-year-old wing, now trying his luck with Stormers in Cape Town, tells Planet Rugby that he especially misses “the camaraderie between the players and teams” on the circuit. This weekend, in particular, will be challenging, because Cape Town Sevens is his “favourite tournament in the world – purely because I love the city so much”.
Senatla’s blistering try-scoring form was central to South Africa being crowned HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series champions in the last two editions. Given the team’s dominance, it may come as a surprise to learn that it is now three years since the hosts last triumphed in Cape Town, at the inaugural event back in 2015.
In last year’s competition, New Zealand were crowned champions, with the Blitzboks claiming the plate. In 2016, the South Africans were edged out 19-17 by England in the final. Now, after an uncharacteristically poor showing in the opening round in Dubai – South Africa finished in sixth-place last weekend – the team will need to raise their game, without Senatla. It won’t be easy, given that their Pool A also contains All Blacks Sevens – on a high following their Dubai triumph – Samoa and Zimbabwe.
Senatla, who is helping HSBC to grow the game of sevens globally, believes the hurt of the two previous Cape Town failures, coupled with last weekend’s disappointment in the Middle East, will spur his former teammates to glory this weekend.
“If we had done much better in Dubai my message would take a different route,” he told Planet Rugby. “The fact that we didn’t is enough motivation to turn things around. What better place to do it than in your own country?”
Home advantage will play a part, he insists. “For me and the boys, the fact that we’re playing on our home soil in front of your friends and family, which only happens once annually, makes you savour the experience dearly. For all the other players, I think they pray that we reach the final to hear the stadium erupt when singing the national anthem.”
There were few positives for South Africa in Dubai, but that teenager Muller du Plessis crossed for six tries – including three against Olympic champions Fiji – was a plus. Senatla hailed the 19-year old as a “rising star”, and said: “He showed what he can do, and teams will now be weary of the threat he poses.”
Senatla hinted that he may be persuaded to return to the sevens fold before the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, citing unfinished business.
“That’s a heavy temptation for me,” he revealed.
South Africa won bronze when the sport made its Games debut in Rio de Janeiro, but after suffering a wrist injury in the semi-final against Great Britain Senatla missed out on a medal, cruelly.
“Considering how the tournament ended for me, going back to create a better ending is on my mind,” he added.
Olympic inclusion has significantly boosted the popularity of the sport, posits Senatla, and South Africa’s back-to-back HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series titles have certainly raised the profile in his home country.
“There is so much athleticism, skill, and creativity in sevens – you won’t find better entertainment anywhere else,” he says.
“There’s definitely a huge growth in the code. At some point it threatened to overtake 15s. The fan base was so huge, the sevens jerseys were selling more than the 15s jerseys, I heard.
“In South Africa the word on the street is that the Blitzboks is the people’s team, the nation’s pride. The team has even managed to convert some South Africans that were supporting other countries. It’s really been crazy.”
Finally, Senatla praised the work of HSBC in spreading the game across the world, from grassroots-level upwards. The multinational bank, for example, helped to organise a Tag Rugby session on Wednesday that attracted over 200 Cape Town youngsters.
“The Tag Rugby and HSBC initiatives have reach in marginalised communities that don’t even have the means to get to know about sevens by watching it on television, or any other platform,” added Senatla. “I’ve been to clinics and kids haven’t seen an oval ball before. By the time we leave, they can’t seem to put the ball down.
“It’s always a special sight to see kids smiling from ear to ear after spending time with them. The sparkles in their eyes warms my heart, it’s another tool of hope you give them to escape from their realities.”
If the South Africans manage to make it third time lucky this weekend at the Cape Town Sevens, without try-scoring extraordinaire Senatla, countless more locals youngsters will discover sparkles in their eyes for the sport.
Oliver Pickup is a London-based, multi-award-winning freelance journalist. He specialises in sport – particularly rugby union – as well as technology.