Springbok Sevens coach Paul Treu, with a side that is not remotely his first choice, will be bouyed by the fact the first tournament in the 2008/09 IRB Sevens World Series that starts in Dubai on Friday, is always something of a gamble.
The past three Dubai tournaments have produced three winners. Whether it is the heat, or the uncertainty that goes with new teams having to find their feet, is unclear, but England, South Africa and New Zealand have won the last three tournaments.
Treu’s Springboks do not inspire the same confidence as they have early on in past tournaments when they often had the luxury of “loan” Super 14 players. The loss of stalwarts such as captain Neil Powell (injured), Fabian Juries, Danwell Demas, Schalk van der Merwe, Jonathan Mokuena (all Super 14 commitments, except for Juries who opted out after an altercation with Treu) and Stefan Basson and Henno Mentz (both overseas) make this a relatively inexperienced bunch – and importantly, a team without a real gamebreaker.
The two all-time greats of the game, Juries and Basson, will be sorely missed. And that is where Robert Ebersohn can take the step up that his team so urgently needs.
In his first season with the Sevens Boks Ebersohn was instrumental in the victory over New Zealand, ending their unbeaten 47-match run. He has pace, good feet, good vision and lots of skill and has the ability to, over time, become another Juries.
Vuyo Zangqa has come along in leaps and bounds in last year’s IRN series and had an oustanding Currie Cup campaign with the leopards. With new captain Paul Delport, Ebersohn , Renfred Dazel and Mzwandile Sticks, the Boks will be formidable at the back.
Up front, however, there is a lack of depth with the pressure on experienced Marius Schoeman and Mpho Mbiyozo, and to a lesser extent Frankie Horne, to be competitive.
In South Africa’s favour is the experience of coach Treu. With Gordon Tietjens of New Zealand, the former Springbok captain is one of the best coaches around, and has the added advantage that he has, over the years, almost always coached a side of seemingly no-hopers to good performances.
South Africa are seeded second for Dubai and have been drawn with Kenya, Scotland and the Arabian Gulf in Pool B. They recently played a series of warm-ups against the Gulf in South Africa as a “development” gesture to their hosts who dearly want to improve their standard. It is a reasonably favourable pool draw and, should the Boks win it, they will come up against either Australia or Wales in the quarterfinal on Day 2. The Aussies and Wales, both with a new coach for this series, are likely to fight it out for second place in Pool A which defending champions New Zealand should have little difficulty winning. A slip-up by the Springboks in the pool phase will see them face the Kiwi’s in the quarter-finals.
If the Boks survive it to the semifinals,they will most likely have Samoa as their opponent.
The Dubai Sevens will be the first event to be played at ‘The Sevens’, a purpose-built stadium and the headquarters for rugby in the region. The new state-of-the-art facility will also host the Sevens World Cup for both men and women in March.
New Zealand proved unbeatable for much of last season, winning in Dubai and then capturing four further Cup titles on the bounce in George (South Africa), Wellington, San Diego and Hong Kong before finishing the season strongly to defend their Edinburgh crown and rubber-stamp a remarkable season – their eighth Series triumph in nine years.
South Africa, who won the Adelaide tournament last year, finished second to the Kiwis in last season’s standings. Samoa were the only other side to win a tournament in the 2007/08 series, the London Sevens at Twickenham. As third seeds they top Pool C against a resurgent Argentina and the dual European challenge of France and Georgia.