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New dawn for rugby as Sevens heroes raise the bar

By Gary Lemke

Expect more 15-man Springboks to see Sevens rugby in an entirely different light when captain Kyle Brown and his victorious South African team arrive in South Africa on Tuesday after winning gold at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.

The team were given a rousing send-off by Team SA and other dignitaries and members of the public at the Ekhaya hospitality centre in the city before flying to Dubai and then back to Johannesburg.

‘The president of the Commonwealth Games Federation told me before the competition that Sevens is THE biggest medal to win,’ said SASCOC president Gideon Sam in his address. ‘We targeted 15 golds here, but this is the cherry on the top. This is the big prize. I am happy,’ he said.

South African deputy sports minister Gert Oosthuizen, who arrived in Glasgow on Monday, told the Sevens players that they had ‘done the country proud. The country was glued to the TV and I can promise you that when you return you will be treated like winners. We’re a country that exports lots of gold but you are taking lots of it back with you.’

General consensus here at the Commonwealth Games is that South Africa were the best team in the tournament over the weekend. They started out by not conceding a point against minnows Trinidad & Tobago and Cook Islands, but then beat Kenya 20-0 – and those who follow formlines will have argued that New Zealand only prevailed 19-7 against the same opponents.

However, Warren Whiteley reckoned it was the quarter-final against Scotland where the players and management truly believed they could go all the way and inflict a first ever Commonwealth Games defeat on New Zealand.

‘We took great belief out of that win [35-12]. The Scots had the massive support of their home crowd but we played well and things started to click. After that we knew we had two matches to get everything right. The confidence within the squad was huge,’ he said.

‘It is the dream of any athlete to compete in an Olympic Games and it is my ambition as well to go to Rio 2016 as part of this squad and do South Africa proud by winning there. A lot of the 15s boys back home are going to be interested in what it’s like to be part of the Sevens team at a Commonwealth Games or Olympics,’ Whiteley said.

His comments were echoed by Cornal Hendricks, who made his 15-man Springbok debut against Wales in June and has scored two tries in his three Test appearances. ‘To beat New Zealand any time is special, whether it’s in Sevens or with the Springboks. They’re the No1 team in the world. But to do so in a gold medal match at the Commonwealth Games is unbelievable. These Games’, like the Olympics, only come around every four years. Rio is going to be amazing and I’m sure the 15s players are going to be looking to get involved.’

Brown, the heroic captain who had to be replaced during Sunday’s 17-12 final victory because of a dislocated right shoulder, said he was ‘ecstatic … to say the least. I’m so happy to be part of a great team. Not just the Sevens as a unit, but Team South Africa. All the codes competing here, the management, physios, everyone. It’s very special. We’re already all looking forward to the Rio Olympics.’

Describing the moment he got injured he said he instantly knew it was serious. ‘I heard the shoulder pop and then I was hit by another guy entering the ruck and I heard this tearing noise. I was in real pain. They gave me some laughing gas and for a while I was floating.’

Brown now faces surgery to repair the damage and he has been told there will be a 12-week process before he can play again. But if ever he feels a bit down in the dumps, he can just look at his gold medal and all will be well with the world again.

Coach Neil Powell has performed mini miracles with this squad since taking over from Paul Treu and, in his usual modest manner, he paid tribute to the players. ‘I’m so proud of them. They threw their bodies into their tackles and their work ethic never wavered. And on attack they were clinical. It’s always tough playing New Zealand but we were confident that we’d pull through and we did.’