Many would say that the Springboks are in ill health. After finishing third in the Rugby Championship and losing to Ireland and Wales during the autumn international period, South Africa are currently sitting in sixth place in the World Rugby rankings.
Yet it is far from doom and gloom for South African rugby as the Springboks’ younger sibling the Blitzbok is fighting fit. South Africa Sevens are current holders of the HSBC World Series and they have started their defence in emphatic form sealing victory at the Dubai 7s last weekend.
Further testimony to the Blitzboks’ strength is a sold out Cape Town Stadium as the HSBC Cape Town 7s kick-off this morning. Rugby’s short form seems to have caught the imagination of the South African rugby public. A gold medal in the 2014 Commonwealth Games as well as a bronze in Rio have also helped the cause in bringing sevens to mainstream attention in South Africa.
So, what is the secret to the Blitzboks’ success?
Chris Dry, now in his ninth season playing for South Africa Sevens, believes that the team culture and the fact that the Blitzboks were early adopters of a full-time sevens programme have been instrumental to their rise, the 2016/17 World Series win was only the Blitzboks’ second title after they first won in 2008/09.
“Because we have been so consistent with that squad over the years, and there have been so many guys who have bought in to make sevens a profession, I think that gave us the opportunity to be successful.”
Another key to the Blitzboks’ success both on and off the field is the fact that players are coming from a broad range of backgrounds. Since the end of Apartheid, there has been much debate surrounding a lack of racial diversity in Springbok squads while there also being issues around quotas and positive discrimination. The sevens set up seems to have succeeded in growing a squad that is more representative of South African society while also cultivating a strong bond between players.
Dry says: “We have a very diverse system and a very diverse team, guys come from different backgrounds from all over the country, once you buy into the system, then it doesn’t matter what your background is or where you are from. That is the most crucial part of our culture.”
Another part of the squad’s culture is to give back by ensuring that the current diversity is continued. Dry is a passionate advocate of the TAG Rugby initiative, which aims to cultivate local talent on the ground in South Africa by using the Blitzboks’ star power to elevate the game and to involve disadvantaged children young people from six to 18 years old, who may not have ever had the chance to previously take part in a sport.
The 29-year-old, who attended Grey College in Bloemfontein, a famed rugby nursery that has the reputation of being a production line for Springboks including Bismarck du Plessis, Ruan Pienaar and Francois Steyn, is acutely aware of the levels of inequality in terms of the lack of resources and facilities available to many children in South Africa.
He says: “A lot of schools in South Africa don’t have playing fields, TAG has helped to accommodate these kids playing rugby, you can do it on any kind of space, you can do it on tarmac, you can put up four cones and get everyone involved.
“The initiative is trying to get everyone involved and is trying to focus on children who wouldn’t get a chance to play rugby or any sport in school, that is the concept behind it. It is really great because it teaches these kids that anything is possible. It gives them an opportunity to do other things besides things like joining gangs or doing drugs. It is really important to get those kids out and influence them in a positive way.”
Dry is of the opinion that giving these young people encouragement and a chance to just enjoy their childhood is more powerful than giving them something material.
“A lot of the time, you realise that these kids are coming from very underprivileged backgrounds and to get them out of that environment and to give them a little bit of excitement, to give a young kid a high five and say ‘well done’, I think that acknowledgement means so much more than giving them a physical thing, like say a pair of shoes or clothes. This is a fun day for these kids, a lot of times they forget what is happening around them at home, to just experience some fun and excitement.”
Another insight into the South Africans’ winning mentality is how if a decorated Springbok decides to make the move to sevens, he should be prepared for tough love from the Blitzbok camp.
“When they come in they don’t start of wearing a Springbok on their chest, these guys come in and they have a normal training jersey but it hasn’t got the Springbok on it, they have to earn that jersey. That forms a strong part of our culture. You could have 100 caps for the Springboks XVs but you wouldn’t get a sevens training jersey with a Springbok on it, you have to earn that jersey.”
When Bryan Habana tried his hand at sevens leading up to the Rio Olympics he did not have to earn his Springbok emblazoned training jersey as he had played in a sevens tournament for South Africa in the early part of his career but the likes of Wasps’ Juan de Jongh and Worcester Warriors’ Francois Hougaard, who both went on to win bronze in Rio had to earn the right. For Dry, no one player is bigger than the Blitzbok collective.
“I think we are one of the hardest working teams and I think it comes down to whether you want to buy into the system and almost become second to the system and so it is not about the individual, it is much more about the team. I think that is our focus and that is why we have been so successful.”
Chris Dry was speaking at the HSBC TAG Rugby Clinic ahead of the HSBC Cape Town 7s