No stars, no problem for Powell

Craig Ray

Elite coaching seldom allows for growth because winning is the currency that professional sports teams trade in. If positive results aren’t delivered, the coach is quickly ushered to a door marked ‘Exit’.

There are common traits that the greatest sports coaches share – single-mindedness, vision, organisation and a winning mentality – to get the job done successfully. But few are allowed the chance to fully develop those traits, or impose them on their teams.

Having those and many other skills won’t be enough if there isn’t support from above – whether it be an owner or a CEO. Coaches need to have people in high places that share their vision and who have the same stomach for the fight.

Weak bosses will cripple an elite sports team if they don’t share the same clarity about the direction a team is taking. A strong boss will do everything to create an environment to shape that winning context, but be ruthless enough to know when to hit eject.

It’s a fine line and more often than not caution and fear overcomes vision and patience. But it is the coach who makes the decisions that ultimately decide his own fate.

Which brings us to Blitzboks mentor Neil Powell. A few more grey hairs notwithstanding, he has hardly put a foot wrong since his appointment six years ago.

His first five seasons at the helm produced three runners-up places and two titles in the World Rugby Sevens Series, including 12 tournament wins (two more this year), a Commonwealth Games gold medal and an Olympic bronze.

He was given the latitude by SA Rugby to gradually build a team to become World Series winners. It took three years of finishing second before they claimed the title with a tournament to spare in 2017.

In 2018 it took until the last minute of the 60th and last game of the campaign for the Blitzboks to retain their title.

This year the chances of making it three in a row are gone after a slow start, but Powell’s team are looking stronger as the season goes on.

They lost so many players – too long to list here – to injury and migration to 15s. More than 10 World Series champions have been missing and naturally results have been inconsistent as Powell rebuilds.

But through it all he has remained as self-assured as Gordon Ramsay at a braai. Because for him and those he inspires, results are a simply bye-product of processes, planning and execution.

His remarkable ability to see everything in this light, even when fans and media are starting to question, is the reason the Blitzboks have won two of the last three World Series tournaments and why they continue to command respect.

The really hard work happens at the Sevens Academy conceived and created by Powell and fellow coach Marius Schoeman.

Started by the pair in 2010 on a shoestring budget, the SA Sevens Academy in Stellenbosch today contracts 28 players as full time sevens professionals and is constantly scouting for new talent.

Schoeman’s role is intrinsic to the Sevens programme’s success, but it’s Powell’s leadership that shapes it. He is unafraid to delegate responsibility and willing to concede where he has to personally improve.

Last week in Singapore, instead of leading analysis sessions, he made players run the debriefs. They had to take ownership, and offer explanations and solutions for the shortcomings exposed at the previous week’s Hong Kong tournament where they finished seventh. It was both daunting and liberating for the players and the results in Singapore underlined what a good piece of management it was.

Powell could have panicked and tried desperate new tactics or called for stalwarts such as Seabelo Senatla and Tim Agaba to abandon fifteens and return to save the Blitzboks.

But he resisted and instead trusted that what has been built in Stellenbosch would deliver the next batch of world-beaters. Which is exactly what happened with Angelo Davids and Kurt-Lee Arendse, the latest duo to have the sevens world salivating.

Clarity of vision, steely resolve and the capacity to stay on course through the rough times are the pillars of Powell’s coaching tenure. The Blitzboks won’t win the World Series again this year, but the foundation has been laid for continued success.

- Craig Ray

Let's chat

  • John Comyn

    That 7’s final was the highlight of my weekend. 2nd only to watching the Sharks getting hammered at home.

    • Barry

      Doesn’t say much about your sporting character John!

      On the other end of the stick, I think the Stormers players should be commended for their performance. They had to dig really deep for that one!

      • John Comyn

        Hello Barry! I thought that might draw you out. It’s a bit like shooting fish in a barrel with a shot gun. As for my sporting character I prefer to be honest versus take the subtle passive aggressive approach as some do. Let’s face it the Sharks were bloody awful! I feel sorry for the coach, he must want to throw bricks at them.

        • Barry

          That’s where we differ John, I totally agree with you, a pitiful performance by the Sharks.

          I said at the beginning of the season that they would battle without Dick Muir’s strategic nous and that’s exactly where we are at. Du Preez is being out thought! Rob Du Preez Junior also needs a break – he played through out the off season, but dad’s not having it and that stubbornness is now reflecting in the attitude of the squad!

          I could go on but this article is about the Blitz Bokke who absolutely resurrected my weekend!

  • Barry

    Unlike you Hermie, most Sharks supporters are happy enough to take it on the chin when they get a hiding and lets be honest they give us ample scope every second weekend!

    Good luck with your Lions revival thing – you sound a bit like a school girl in waiting for Prince Charming. The reality is that it only happens in fairy tales!

    • Herman Schroder?

      No doubt ‘one day my Prince will come’ Cheers.

    • SweetAz

      The difference between a fan and a supporter,-about 20 IQ points. You tell me which one he is.

  • SweetAz

    What a moron, you obviously know nothing about sevens. Anyone who follows sevens will tell you that The Blitzbokke are successful because they have the best defence of all the teams. Its both amazing and amusing how you so blithely and blissfully unaware continue to make a fool of yourself.

  • Albert

    Jeez but you are the most obnoxious fool I have ever come across. Honestly, we have all been saying for the last 3 years that other franchises are building. When the Lions were the laughing stock of SA rugby, and got dumped out of Super Rugby, they had to build with no-names and come together out of adversity to carve their way to the top. Now those no-names have names and are abroad, where are the Lions?

    Get a grip and open your eyes.

    • Herman Schroder?

      The others have had ample time to build but that is not their only problem it’s the coaches and game plan that’s the real problem. That is something that you can change in a fairly short time if you have the personnel that is. Fleckie has had FOUR years and Du Preez three. How much more do they want ? Rassie’s Boks same story, nothing changes.

      The Lions have had a disproportionate loss of real top class players over a very short period which the other Franchises didn’t have so naturally it would impact and I even said as much before the season started. Mind you only 5 points off the log leader at the halfway mark not bad considering the Stormers game and Mr Seconds. So how flash are the others then ?

      And please don’t imitate Mr SweetAz with derogatory comments you are better than that. Cheers.

  • Wesley

    Haha damn, another pretty positive column on this site about sevens, and the comments devolving into a 15s provincialism screaming match. Absolutely loving it.

    The key perhaps the pace of improvement possible in sevens when you can leave the coach to do his thing with a smaller group under the radar building up experience much quicker, instead of the slow pace with only one game every week in a slow slog of matches and the general public breathing down your neck for results. Less politics. Less bullcrap to deal with. Also the trust you can put in youngsters you believe in at your level without the overview of “know-it-alls” poking holes into your vision for them. Thats perhaps the difference in talent-killers that has gripped 15s so badly in the past. Powell is doing a wonderful job, keep it up.

    • John Comyn

      It is a little easier in the 7’s setup. They don’t have every man and his dog in Europe poaching their players. The rugby unions in SA invest a huge amount in academies with a view to developing talent only to have them poached the moment they show any promise.

      • Wesley

        True, but just like Powell has to constantly and now thoroughly adapted to the realistic prospects of losing players thru whatever means, the unions and franchises need to do so too, but can only do so at a slower pace, blooding players more carefully. They dont have the luxury of plying your entire team with experiments, just ask Swys how that has worked out for him the last couple of games. Perhaps we need to adapt to a much more long term patience as supporters.

  • Wesley

    Hermie, you gotta fill in the correct info in the correct field when posting bud. You reveiled your email address for everyone to see in your comment.

    • Barry

      Yes noticed that, no doubt Sweet has him signed up with a few illicit sites already!lol

      • Herman Schroder?

        See my post above to Wesley. I think it’s already started but by whom ? Cheers.

  • John Comyn

    There lies the problem The Lions are trying to play 7’s rugby. They are in a rebuild phase but then why doesn’t Swys kick Jantjies into touch and give a youngster an opportunity?

    • Barry

      He has, Jantjies is benched!

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