23 April 2017

Maintaining Focus: Navigating the Blitzboks’ Title Run-In

Daniel Gallan

The South African Blitzboks need at least a Cup quarterfinal appearance in each of their remaining two tournaments to be crowned champions of the 2016-17 World Rugby Sevens Series. However, such premature talks of titles can prove derailing and in an exclusive interview with CONQA, coach Neil Powell explains how his team is maintaining their focus.

The South African Blitzboks pride themselves on a collective culture that has brought them so close to a second World Rugby Sevens title. With just two tournaments to go, maintaining focus will be crucial.

The South African Blitzboks pride themselves on a collective culture that has brought them so close to a second World Rugby Sevens title. With just two tournaments to go, maintaining focus will be crucial.

With just two tournaments left in the 2016/17 World Rugby Sevens Series, the equation for the South African ‘Blitzboks’ is simple: reach the quarterfinals in both Paris and London and they will be champions for the first time since their only title in 2009.

Back then, Neil Powell was a member of the triumphant squad. Now he is at the helm as head coach and explains how his most difficult and important job is to keep the team’s focus away from the prospect of the World Series and instead on the immediate task at hand.

“When climbing a mountain, if you’re focussed on the summit you’re more than likely going to trip over your next step, which is ultimately the most important step you’re taking,” Powell says. “We can’t focus on the end goal, we can’t allow ourselves to cruise and we can’t get comfortable with the knowledge that all we need is a quarterfinal place in the final tournaments.”

Powell’s men have been sensational this campaign. Despite a poor showing in the most recent tournament in Singapore, a stage that is notoriously challenging for the bigger teams who give their all in the prestigious Hong Kong leg, South Africa has unquestionably been the best team in the competition.

Wins in Dubai, Wellington, Sydney and Las Vegas have been complimented by second place finishes in Cape Town, Vancouver and Hong Kong to leave the Blizboks on 157 points, 25 ahead of last season’s winners and Rio gold medallists, Fiji.

A barnstorming game plan insured by a rock solid defence has won fans and matches the world over. Few would begrudge early title talks inside the South African camp but Powell insists there has been nothing of the sort.

“We’re conscious not to talk about it in the camp,” Powell says. “Last year we tripped up towards the latter part of the season and underperformed when we most needed to step up. A large part of that is down to how we spoke too much about the overall World Series and lost focus. We’ve learned those lessons and are doing our best not to make the same mistakes.”

Powell speaks about controlling the controllable and emphasises the individual variables that constitute success. He says if his team gets those little pieces working as they should, the result will take care of itself.

“The World Series is a big thing to think about, but it’s just a collection of individual tournaments that are themselves a collection of individual matches,” Powell explains. “And those individual matches are made up of a collection of plays and movements; tackles, ball carries, side-steps, clean outs, turnovers. If we focus on getting those individual plays right by remembering and sticking to our processes, we tend to be successful in those games.

“In turn, if we’re successful in those individual games, we are successful in the tournaments. That philosophy has got us here, where winning the title is within our grasp. We’re not thinking big picture because we haven’t all season. Why start now?”

As sound as this logic may be, forgetting about the title might be a thing easier said than done. Powell admits that from time to time he has needed to step in and remind a player or member of staff to realign their focus and shift it away from the World Series.

“I’ve even needed reminding myself during this season,” Powell confesses with a chuckle. “It’s so easy to shift focus. You’re innocently having a conversation and the next thing you’re talking about the title. In a management meeting in Singapore, I started talking about the World Series and someone else immediately stepped in and put me straight. I’m also human and just like everyone else I need help in this way.”

The culture of the Blitzboks is something that is often spoken about by players and coaches and places values like honesty, openness and a collective spirit high on a pedestal. It is this mindset that encourages everyone within the structure to act as a ballast whenever an individual gets carried away.

As Powell says, “Maintaining focus is not the responsibility of one person. Everyone in the team, no matter what their role or seniority, has bought in with the vision and feels empowered to speak up when someone else loses focus.”

While Powell’s mission is to keep the team’s focus fixed on the next tournament, the fact is the World Series is within reach. Tackling the Paris event with the same fervour as the first tournament in Dubai in December last year might lead to burn-out or an injury to a key player.

In conversation with Powell, I use the analogy of a Formula 1 driver with a sizable lead heading into the last 10 or so laps of a race. If the gap between first and second is significant enough, a driver might ease off the accelerator to conserve the engine and avoid making an unnecessary mistake in pursuit of one more fastest lap. With this in mind, has Powell and his coaching team devised a more conservative game plan for the remaining rounds? The answer is an emphatic "no".

“We would be doing ourselves as individuals, our culture as a proud team and our country a disservice if we went into these final tournaments with a more conservative target,” Powell says. “It would be an injustice as that sort of philosophy goes against everything that we stand for. We are targeting two finals with the possibility of two tournament victories. Every time we put that jersey over our heads we feel responsible for our performances and want to be successful.”

With the summit in sight, Powell and his men are taking it one step at a time. They have two more strides to make and they’ll be champions.

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