If the pressure wasn’t high enough with a weight of expectation on their shoulders in their home tournament, Neil Powell’s Springbok Sevens team will find their task even tougher with the emotional burden of a nation on their shoulders in this weekend’s South African Sevens tournament in Port Elizabeth.
Compounding their task as they prepare to do battle in front of their home fans is the desire to do well, especially so in the emotional environment that South Africa is at the moment after the death of former State President Nelson Mandela on Thursday night.
No other team in the 16-nation tournament would have been touched as greatly by Madiba’s death as the Blitzbokke, more so as they carry the hopes of a nation into the tournament in the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in the Nelson Mandela Bay municipality – the names being a constant reminder of the gravitas of Madiba in the Eastern Cape.
But even more than this, as South Africans the Blitzbokke would have their own personal battle, as every South African does, in coming to terms with the news of the loss of a statesman who played a larger than life role not only in South Africa but also in rugby, and the knowledge that without his battle, and blessing, that a tournament such as this would never have been possible.
With the IRB’s decision that the tournament will go ahead in the national days of mourning this weekend, the Blitzbokke will have to shake off the emotion, and ensure they will be able to handle the emotion and expectation that will greet them when they get onto the field.
After all, the first-minute silence to honour Madiba will take place before their opening game against Canada on Saturday and it is likely that tributes will be a major part of the tournament this weekend.
It is a situation which will reach into the depths of the team’s resolve, will test them on a personal level and will show how well they can handle a pressure that no other team will face.
It is easy to call on them to “play for Madiba” or in his memory, and perhaps the emotion will transcend into the famous Madiba Magic that we have seen inspire so many sporting teams of the past.
But then again, if it does not, given the emotion in Port Elizabeth right now, it will be hard not to understand if they find it all a little too much.
Under new coach Neil Powell they have shown more consistency, having made the semifinals in the Gold Coast and the final in Dubai. The natural progression would make them favourites, as would home ground status. But Sevens has a way of being a leveler for any side, with the playing field a lot more even than in the longer version of the game.
And the Blitzbokke lost their Dubai star — Jamba Ulengo — and the experience of Stephan Dippenaar during the week. Frankie Horne passed a late fitness test, something which would have buoyed them on the eve of the competition.
But against Canada, Spain and Kenya they have a decent pool – with former coach Paul Treu’s Kenyan side the stern test they need to end day one off with.
Sunday will be a mixture of emotion, luck of the draw and putting consistent performances together.
Powell knows the severity of his task – it has been one that Treu could only manage to complete once in his time at the helm of the squad.
New Zealand have won the last four tournaments in South Africa and seem to feed off their local group of supporters in the city who refuse to support their countrymen.
Perhaps the emotion of this weekend may swing them back for a moment, perhaps the Blitzbokke will shoulder the responsibility themselves and find that Madiba Magic to give a gift back to a mourning nation.
Either way, it will be an emotional weekend filled with action in the shadow of a world great.
BLITZBOKKE FIXTURES (all times CAT, GMT+2)
1:12pm SA v Canada
4:18pm SA v Spain
7:58pm SA v Kenya
All games live on SuperSport