Blitzboks coach Neil Powell "didn't think it would be humanly possible to win" the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series when the team arrived for the season-ending Paris Sevens -- even more so because they were battered and bruised and seven points behind Fiji on the ladder. However, their ultimate victory, after the Islanders faltered in the Cup quarterfinals, spoke volumes for the character and mental strength of his players.
Key to their successful title defence, Powell believes, has been the development and relatively seemless integration of new players.
He has used 28 while having to deal with the loss, through injury, of established stars such as skipper Chris Dry, Kyle Brown, 2017 World Rugby Player of the Year nominee Rosko Specman, Tim Agaba, Cecil Afrika and Branco du Preez.
The benefit, though, is that the Blitzboks are now not just champions but also better placed to head to the Rugby Sevens World Cup in San Francisco in July and longer-term to the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
Powell said of the depth developed that he didn't want "just a second guy in line but a third guy and sometimes a fourth guy".
Blitzboks coach Neil Powell didn't think it was humanly possible to win the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series heading into the Paris Sevens.
"If a guy like [team captain] Philip Snyman gets injured then we have a player like Zain Davids... you don't need to get a player from XVs to take Phil's place who doesn't understand his roles and responsibilities inside that team,," he said after the team returned home to Cape Town International Airport."
Powell said he had developed a plan to manage players through the season, to ensure they were strong from the opening leg in Dubai through to the final Paris Sevens tournament and to give the next generation a taste of the 12-leg global series.
As important to his course of action, was never doubting it despite both the criticism of the decision to send a rookie team under Academy coaching staff to the storied Hong Kong Sevens and the failure to win a medal as defending champions at the Commonwealth Games in Australia.
"That was one of our goals this season, not just to win the World Series but to develop the next generation of Sevens players," he said. "I would have approached the Commonwealth Games differently -- maybe would have gone into the [tournament] later, not that early -- but the plan was always a good plan. We sat before the season and said this is the way we're going to do things."
Powell felt in hatching his plan that the players had to be managed better to be able to perform in London and Paris at the end of the season.
"The plan actually worked out nicely in hindsight.
"And the fact the guys picked up those points in Hong Kong [for finishing third], the team that we sent there helped us to be successful."
Blitzboks coach Neil Powell says the team was able to win the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series in adversity because of the systems in place.
The Springboks Sevens arrived in Paris in second place on the season's log behind Fiji, who had won four consecutive tournaments, in Vancouver, Hong Kong, Singapore and London, beating South Africa 21-17 in the Cup final at Twickenham, to claim a seven-point buffer in the standings.
But they did so having lost two more key players to injury in London -- Afrika and du Preez -- and then Stedman Gans broke his hand in pre-Paris training and had to be replaced in the match day squad.
The team then opened their campaign at Stade Jean-Bouin in Paris in the worst possible way with a 14-12 defeat by Scotland.
That result could have undermined a team of lesser character, but they rebounded to progress to the knockout stages with victories over Russia and Canada while Scotland failed to progress from the pool play. South Africa's progression, on points differential, was confirmed only with a 28-0 victory against Canada in the final match of the pool, confirming their ability under the greatest pressure, and they showed that character again in squeezing past Spain in the quarterfinals.
"I want to give credit to the players for keeping their focus after that Spain quarterfinal," Powell said, noting they "obviously didn't perform well."
Powell said that Fiji's shock defeat, by England, at the same stage of the tournament had galvanised his players ahead of the semifinal against New Zealand and the series-deciding final against England. "I think the composure and the mental space they guys were in, and their focus, was amazing in the last two games."
Powell described the back-to-back Sevens Series victories as "two special seasons".
"Last year for completely dominating the World Series and then this year for using so many players and exposing to many players to the game, and developing players, and it was more of a system effort. It was a massive system effort. We sent Academy players and management to Hong Kong and they still came third in a very tough tournament."
He said the squad had also learned from their disappointment in the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, where he said he thought the focus was wrong.
"We definitely focused on defending our gold medal," he said of a tournament where they lost to Fiji in the semifinals and England in the bronze medal match.
"We have learned to focus on the roles and responsibilities in the last two games [in Paris] against New Zealand and England, and hopefully we'll take that into the World Cup.
"Not just the World Cup but long-term with the Olympics in 2020. Some of guys are getting a little bit older and might not make the Olympics. It's important to have that depth in our squad. Widen that base of players is a good thing. If that competition between players is always healthy, that's always a good thing."