After four series as runner-up, South Africa have finally clinched the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series. We caught up with head coach Neil Powell, who opened the lid on his team's winning culture.
You are finally series champions but what has been the toughest moment of the series for you?
That final against England final in Cape Town was really hard for us. You always want to win on home soil, playing in front of a full stadium, everybody is behind you and cheering you on, and we couldn’t deliver. Singapore also, from that first game we didn’t play well and it was a tough tournament, and one we felt was crucial to perform at heading into the end of the series. We had reached the final the week before in Hong Kong and didn’t play well enough.
The highest point of your series?
Actually, winning in Wellington was a really high point for us. We hadn’t won that since 2001 when I was a player. It was pretty special to go into All Blacks territory and win that tournament. Paris, obviously wrapping up the series was hugely special. We wanted to take some of the pressure off in London and managed to do that with a really strong performance in France.
How hard has it been for you as the coach to keep coming back year-after-year chasing that series win?
It has been mentally tough. Last season we came really close, we missed out by about 10 points. We lost our way in the middle of the series after Hong Kong and Fiji just ran away with it. I felt we had a pretty good season overall but despite playing some great rugby, it was a really tough one to deal with. We weren’t good enough to win it and finding the motivation to keep coming back, I will admit was hard.
The bronze medal was also a tough one to take at the Olympics. We thought we could do enough to go into the final and then losing to Great Britain was very difficult. At the beginning of the series, we had a meeting. We were focused and spoke about our desire to win the series. No more runner-up spots for us. From that moment, the players went out and knew what they had to do, and have delivered the series win.
What kind of culture have you been trying to create throughout 2016-17?
One hundred per cent effort 100 per cent of the time. Whether it’s on the training pitch or on the playing field. Every time they put that jersey over their heads, they know it’s time to step up. They represent South Africa and the Springboks sevens set-up, and know that every move they make and every way they approach situations counts towards the overall culture. We don’t want to be seen as a team that gives up, gives away easy tries or can be brushed aside easily. There’s a real work ethic in this team which is breeding success in the long term.
What piece of coaching advice can you give now that you are a series-winning coach?
The culture. Get that right, and a lot of other things follow. Better people make better players. We have created a band of brothers here who play for each other and don’t want to let each other down.
Now that the series is wrapped up for you, what are the plans going forward?
We’re now close to ending the first year of a four year cycle for the Olympics, and all the management team are on board until 2020 so we are working hard on the plans to take the team to the next level and be gold medal winning by Tokyo in 2020.
Next year we have the Commonwealth Games and Rugby World Cup Sevens to build for but also we need to keep searching for new talent and new players to come through the academy to replace some of the older guys who are maybe not going be at the 2020 Olympics. It’s going to be important to relay our plans to the union and build relations with teams in South Africa so we can all achieve shared success.