Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, Springbok Sevens coach NEIL POWELL talks about extending his contract, why the Blitzboks are a transformation success story and previews the last two events on the circuit.
Sport24 asked: How have you grown into your role as Springbok Sevens coach?
Neil Powell: I retired as a player in 2012 and the transition to management was challenging at first. When Paul Treu vacated his position as Blitzbok coach in 2013, I was thrown into the deep end and had to either sink or swim. Thankfully, I was a good swimmer. I was appointed in October and took charge of the team for the first time at the Gold Coast Sevens in Australia. Originally, Vuyo Zangqa and I operated as co-coaches. Myself and Vuyo were part of the Springbok Sevens squad that won the Sevens World Series in the 2008/09 season. Vuyo was then appointed as assistant coach, but he decided not to renew his contract with SA Rugby. The first few months as head coach were extremely tough for me and the biggest challenge was trying to get the best out of every person within the set-up. I never knew how much work went on behind the scenes. The on-field coaching and game understanding has always come naturally to me. However, it took time to get comfortable with managing the system and the people within the organisation. I felt like every decision I made had massive consequences on the team, but I have since relaxed into my role. Having now been at the helm for five years, I have matured considerably as both a man and mentor and I’m more comfortable in my own skin. However, as an international coach you can never stop learning. I still take lessons from every tournament that we play on the world circuit. I hold the view that when you stop learning and developing as a coach, you are not standing still, you are actually going backwards.
Sport24 asked: What was the motivation in signing a four-year contract extension?
Neil Powell: It’s a massive privilege and honour for me to coach the Springbok Sevens team as I’m passionate about the game and our country. I was humbled to hear that (SA Rugby CEO) Jurie Roux said that I’m highly sought after on the international circuit and they are very grateful that I extended my contract with the Blitzboks. SA Rugby has been good to me on a personal and professional front. I feel privileged to be part of the SA Rugby system and the Springbok Sevens set-up. There are a few goals that we still want to achieve as a group and that was the motivating factor which informed my decision to sign until 2020. I feel as though we can still get stronger as a system and there is always room for improvement as a team. I have won the Sevens World Series as a player and I would like to do the same as a coach. We are also looking ahead to the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia in April and the Sevens World Cup in America in July. Coaching at a second Olympic Games in 2020 will also be a great honour. The Olympics is the biggest sporting event in the world and something I believe we are lacking in South Africa is that Olympic culture and the value of an Olympic medal. It’s something we can definitely promote more and try to build in SA.
Sport24 asked: Your assessment of the season with a 25-point lead and two legs to play?
Neil Powell: I’m very happy with our season so far after eight legs of the series have been completed. However, we weren’t pleased with our performance in Singapore. We lost to Australia in the quarter-finals and failed to reach the final four. I wasn’t disappointed with the result as much as the type of rugby we played. The truth of the matter is that we underperformed and it was not good enough in terms of the high standards we set. However, we also have to take into account that we were hit by a spate of injuries and a number of seasoned players were unavailable for selection. It’s always going to prove a steep learning curve for the younger players on the international circuit. In Sevens, there is a slender margin for error and if you make a mistake you really stand out. However, there was a silver lining because the likes of Kyle Brown, Philip Snyman and Cecil Afrika are going to retire in the near future and we need to develop the next generation of Sevens stars. We head into the final two tournaments with a 25-point lead over second-placed Fiji, but we definitely won’t rest on our laurels and our focus won’t be results-driven. It’s going to be important to keep focusing on the elements that have made us successful this season, and we believe that if we play to our potential we can claim our first World Series title since the 2008/09 season. I’ve told the players that if we follow the right processes the results will take care of themselves. A mental step up rather than a physical one is required in order to seal the deal. Last year, we tripped up towards the latter part of the season and underperformed when we most needed to step up. The mental side of the game is crucial. As such, Prof Pieter Kruger, whom the players refer to as the ‘head doctor’, has been working with us for the last few months and hopefully he will help us get into the right mental space in order to be successful. We don’t just want to cruise through the last two tournaments and reach two quarter-finals to claim the overall series. We want to finish on a winning note and, as a group, we have agreed that we will put everything into our performances in Paris and London later this month.
Sport24 asked: Do you agree with the assertion that culture determines climate?
Neil Powell: Yes. The culture of this team is really one of our strong points and something which we pride ourselves on. It’s important for us as a management staff to create an environment in which individuals can reach their full potential. We have what we call an ‘in the box, out of the box system.’ The big box is the system which everyone must follow, but inside of that we want the players to get out of their individual boxes and have the freedom to play what’s in front of them. I’m not the kind of coach who instructs his players when to kick, pass or step. I tell my players to read the match situation and take responsibility for decision-making. It’s a fine line between giving the guys the freedom to do what they are capable of and putting them into a structure so that everybody is on the same page. I believe we are getting the balance right more times than not. Off the field, we have created an effective environment where honesty and mutual respect are the cornerstones. I have a system in place where my door is always open. I don’t want the players to hide anything from me, and want them to come into my office and say: “Coach, I have made a mistake. This is what happened and can you please help me sort it out?” I see myself as a father figure in the set-up. Finding the balance between being approachable but still maintaining a distance as a member of the management team is something that I’ve honed over time. While I have an open door policy as the head coach, I obviously can’t invite the players to my house for a braai and a few glasses of red wine.
Sport24 asked: Why have the Blitzboks proved a transformation success story?
Neil Powell: I believe it’s because we don’t see colour in our system. There are times when I forget that we have players of different races because we judge the players solely on playing ability. All the players in our squad are selected on merit and we have never had to re-select our team because we didn’t have enough players of colour to meet transformation targets. (According to SA Rugby’s strategic transformation plan, 50% of the Springbok team must be made up of players of colour by 2019). We work on developing individuals within our system and their skin tone is irrelevant. It’s an unbelievable privilege for me as a coach to work with this group of players and we embrace all races, cultures and religions. For the first time, this season we had a Muslim player in our team in the form of Zain Davids. As a collective, we embraced his culture and tried to adapt so that we could accommodate him in regards to his religion. The players see themselves as 13 South Africans and, as soon as they pull the green and gold jersey over their heads, their aim is to represent their country and make the people back home proud. It’s an amazing system to be a part of and I’m really blessed.
Sport24 asked: Can the Springboks implement the Blitzboks’ successful blueprint?
Neil Powell: I don’t think that our blueprint would work for the Springboks. In terms of preparation, conditioning, player identification and succession planning, the key difference between us and the Springboks is that we have got a permanent system in place. We are together as a team all year round and can therefore develop a structure which exclusively feeds the Springbok Sevens team. 15-man rugby is different with the unions in the picture and Super Rugby commitments. While the Springboks will have had three training camps, the fact that Allister Coetzee’s team will only get together a week before they face France in June is a significant point of difference. I’m of the opinion that the unions need to play a bigger role in succession planning for Springbok rugby. If all the unions can work together to strengthen the national team then it’s a win-win situation for everyone. Ours and theirs are two different systems and, as a result, you cannot just copy and paste.
Previous Q&A chats:
Bakkies BothaRohan Janse van Rensburg