Fiji coach Gareth Barber can smell blood in the water as his side looks to close the gap on SA‚ and even overhaul them‚ at the top of the 2017-18 HSBC World Sevens Series round seven in Hong Kong this weekend.
SA have opted to take an inexperienced team to Hong Kong, with five debutants and no players with more than 10 World Series appearances in the squad‚ while their stars are wrapped in cotton wool for next week’s Commonwealth Games.
SA coach Neil Powell says this has been part of the planning‚ but it is a high-risk strategy‚ especially as Fiji have picked their strongest team.
The same players will represent the Pacific Islanders at the Commonwealth Games at Gold Coast next week.
Why SA didn’t take the same approach has not been fully explained‚ especially as Hong Kong and Gold Coast are virtually in the same time zone.
Back-to-back tournaments are regular in the World Series and these two events could have been treated in the same way.
Barber‚ whose Fijian team has great sevens depth‚ sees Hong Kong as a perfect chance to cut SA’s eight-point lead at the top of the log this weekend.
"For the Fijians this [Hong Kong] is one of the biggest tournaments that exists‚" Barber said on Thursday.
"I’ve selected a squad to go and win both Hong Kong and the Commonwealth Games and we’re ready to compete at the highest level."
The Blitzboks have nothing to lose though‚ as there are no expectations this weekend. If a bunch of rookies can win the one tournament on the series stage where victory has eluded SA for over 20 years‚ then it would be the greatest performance in SA Sevens history.
Members of the squad have been making all the right noises in the build-up to Hong Kong and while just qualifying for the quarterfinals would be an achievement‚ it is an opportunity for some players to stake a claim for the future.
One of the new faces in the squad is Standerton-raised Mfundo Ndhlovu‚ who will be playing on the wing‚ a position Seabelo Senatla made his own in the past.
"It is a massive honour to be wearing Seabelo’s jersey‚ but it is also a big responsibility‚" said Ndhlovu. "I take that on knowing that my teammates will back me‚ just as I back them to do the right thing."
Ndhlovu‚ who won gold with SA’s Under-18 team at the Youth Commonwealth Games in 2015‚ is excited about the opportunity to represent his country at senior international level in Sevens — a code that he loves.
"This is going to be huge for all of us‚" he said. "I can’t wait‚ and I know the rest of the squad feels the same."
The Blitzboks are drawn in pool C and will face England‚ Scotland and South Korea.
Springbok Sevens team (with World Rugby Sevens Series stats):
1 Heino Bezuidenhout (uncapped)‚ 2 Ryan Oosthuizen (6 tournaments‚ 23 matches‚ 20 points‚ 5 tries)‚ 3 Zain Davids (9 tournaments‚ 36 matches‚ 20 points‚ five tries)‚ 4 Marco Labuschagne (2 tournaments‚ 2 matches‚ 0 points)‚ 5 Mosolwa Mafuma (uncapped)‚ 6 James Murphy (uncapped)‚ 7 Selvyn Davids (3 tournaments‚ 15 matches‚ 21 points‚ three tries)‚ 8 Dewald Human (captain; 2 tournaments‚ 7 points‚ 1 try)‚ 9 Rhyno Smith (uncapped)‚ 10 Stedman Gans (8 tournaments‚ 30 matches‚ 20 points‚ 4 tries)‚ 11 Muller du Plessis (2 tournaments‚ 8 matches‚ 5 points)‚ 12 Mfundo Ndhlovu (uncapped)‚ 13 *Sandile Ngcobo (6 tournaments‚ 20 matches‚ 4 tries)
*Official replacement player