Johannesburg - As a professional who takes pride in his conditioning, Sikhumbuzo Notshe may have been forgiven for thinking the Blitzboks were taking the piss when they all told him “You have to run!” upon joining their camp about a month ago.
But, as it turns out, the Stormers loose forward’s new team-mates weren’t joking. One really has to do things on the hop to survive – let alone thrive – in a Blitzboks environment setting the standard for elite performance in the country.
Four weeks into his Sevens adventure to improve aspects of his game, Notshe, who has been eased into the code through the academy squad and will return to 15-man rugby after the first four World Rugby Sevens tournaments, has unwittingly lifted the lid on what makes the Blitzboks rock.
“If I could use one word to describe them it would be ‘intense’,” said Notshe a few days ago. “When I got there, they told me: ‘You have to run, you have to get off the ground!’ The intensity in Sevens and 15s rugby isn’t the same – it’s tough to get used to and if you’re not mentally tough, it can break you.
“How they do things is not the same; the decision-making is quicker and you have to be sharp and react quickly. The lights have to be on all the time. In 15s, you can make a mistake and make up for it later. You can’t do that in Sevens".
The most impressive thing the 24-year-old Notshe has found in the team is the famed culture of excellence, which brought the Blitzboks last season’s World Rugby Sevens Series championship and saw them begin their defence by winning the opening leg of the new series in Dubai last week.
“It’s so big that you as an individual don’t want to be the guy that pulls it down,” he said. “It’s so strong, so nice, that it’s hard to describe it. Everyone is comfortable in the environment and, if you’re not happy in it, I’m not sure what you want.
“What was fascinating when I got there was that the culture is driven by senior players, as opposed to the coaches. They [the senior players] are the ones who make sure that everyone is comfortable and involved".
The South Africa A player gave some overachiever type examples of the culture: “Their gym sessions and meetings start five minutes early. They have a saying that if you’re on time, you’re late. They also have a system where if you are late, you are fined – but I still haven’t seen anyone fined.
“Nobody wants to let the team down and that’s why they’re so successful. Sure, they’ve got talent, but everybody works so hard for each other – they have a saying that if you take more than two seconds to get off the ground you’re costing the team ...”
Head coach Neil Powell also came in for effusive praise: “When you see the coach fill the water bottles for the players, you don’t feel like he’s superior to everybody else. He’s a really chilled guy; a reasonable person and a real human being who’s an honest and straightforward guy.
“He’s got high standards and he won’t ask you to do something he won’t do himself. The leadership and success all starts with him".
It is to these success-crazed surroundings that Notshe, a talented No 8 whose career had hit something of a plateau before a decent Currie Cup campaign, has turned to sharpen his 15s game.
“After doing the same thing pre-season routine and playing since I joined the Stormers, I guess I wanted a different challenge, a change of scenery and to improve my game. Sevens is a very one-on-one game and I want to improve my one-on-one defence because things happen so fast in Sevens. I want to up my skill levels and breakdown work".
As a rugby player, Notshe, who has gone from thoroughbred eighthman in the 15-man code to a prop in the shorter version, said he was surprised at the skills Sevens players are capable of that their 15s counterparts take for granted.
Body feels good
“Sevens can humble you,” he said. “You think you can catch and pass, but when you try to pass to someone standing 12m away, you find that even the backline players struggle to do it'.
Now used to the punishing training and floating on about 100kg, as opposed to his Super Rugby weight of 103kg, Notshe said playing in tournaments was a mentality of its own.
“The mental part of playing for 14 minutes, showering and waiting for 45 minutes to an hour to play again takes some getting used to.
“Switching on and off all the time, and having your body feels good on the first day of the tournament but buggered the next day, is tough".