South Africa aim to make it three-in-a-row at Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens
But defending champions are missing key players who have chosen to concentrate on XVs this year in hope of making the 2019 World Cup
South Africa will begin their bid for a hat-trick of Dubai and World Series titles this weekend without a number of the stars that have fuelled their dominance of sevens over the past two seasons.
The defending champions are without the likes of Kwagga Smith and Seabelo Senatla, who have opted to focus on the 15-a-side game instead with a view to next year’s World Cup in Japan.
After being named man of the match when South Africa beat New Zealand in the final in 2017, Smith said he wanted to carry on playing the abridged format with the aim of going for Olympic gold in 2020.
As with last season, he and other players who also excel in the XVs game were made available for selection for the first four legs of the World Sevens Series.
However, the Blitzboks management said they should focus on one form and stick to it.
“We decided, to give them the best chance to make it at either sevens of XVs, they need to make a decision and then stick with that code,” Neil Powell, the South Africa coach, said.
“Most of those guys decided to stay with XVs to see if they can make it to the 2019 World Cup.
“We knew this beforehand that we might lose one or two players, that is why we took and inexperienced academy side to Hong Kong last season, to give them exposure and to test them to see if they can make it at that level.”
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Powell said South African players would always make the same decision if given the choice between playing for the Springboks at a World Cup, or the Olympics.
“It is the way we were brought up,” Powell said. “When we were small and growing up, the Olympics wasn’t real for us.
“We weren’t an Olympic sport and we didn’t grow up with the Olympic culture. That is different from America, where everybody that grows up there, the pinnacle of sport is the Olympic Games.
“For us, it was all about rugby XVs and the World Cup. It is a mentality that is slowly changing back in South Africa.
"I think it is possible for a guy like Kwagga to play in the World Cup next year, and the Olympics in 2020. Because they have chosen XVs now, it does not mean they will not be available in 2020.”
The top four sides in both the men’s and women’s series this season will earn qualification to the Tokyo Games in 2020.
South Africa may be without the likes of Senatla, their leading try-scorer ever. But they still have plenty of firepower, with Rosko Specman, Werner Kok, Branco du Preez and Philip Snyman all looking to add to the titles they have won in the UAE before.
“You still want to be successful, and you still want to take that No 1 position, but qualifying for the Olympic Games" is the main aim of the season, said Snyman, the captain.
“We believe we can get off to a good solid start and set the tone for the rest of the season.”
With four titles in 10 years, South Africa are the most successful side in tournaments that have been played at The Sevens. England and Fiji are next best, with two titles each since the venue opened in 2008.
Tom Mitchell, the England captain, said his side are also focused on finishing in the top four on the series and qualifying for Tokyo.
“It is a big part of this season and, ultimately, all the teams are going out for those top spots on the World Series,” Mitchell said.
“That means breaking it down to each tournament and pushing for those medal spots. That is exactly what we will be doing here in Dubai.”
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Updated: November 29, 2018 03:24 PM