When, 18 months ago, the South African Rugby Union decided not to renew the contract of Paul Treu it seemed as if the governing body had gone mad. As a player and coach, Treu spent a decade with the South African Sevens team, piloting them to 14 tournament victories. He wanted to carry on; he had already produced the blueprint for the Blitzbokke’s development through to the inaugural Olympic Sevens in Rio in 2016.
Saru was happy with the blueprint; they wanted someone else in charge. That someone was Neil Powell, Treu’s first-choice scrum half for several seasons, and then his assistant with the Blitzbokke. Powell was in an invidious position, given his closeness to Treu, but for once in South African sport everyone behaved themselves; no bridges were burnt.
Treu went off to coach the Kenyan Sevens team and Powell slotted into his former mentor’s seat as though nothing had happened. In fact, with the help of chief talent spotter Marius Schoeman, the team immediately stepped up to a new level of performance. They won four tournaments in last year’s World Series and rounded things off with the gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in August.
After a disappointing start to the new season in the Gold Coast, Powell’s squad was strengthened when Western Province flyer Seabelo Senatla was released early from the Springbok tour to Europe. He was also able to call on Lions flanker Kwagga Smith and WP fullback Cheslin Kolbe, who were released to the Sevens squad by their provinces at the end of the Currie Cup.
The new players made an immediate impact in Dubai, as the Blitzbokke went one better than last season, winning the final against Australia after humbling Argentina 36-0 in the quarters and New Zealand 28-0 in the semis. Then they made history by successfully defending their home tournament in Port Elizabeth last week in a performance that may just be the high-water mark of South African Sevens history.
As such it is worth recognising that fact now, for by the time the next tournament rolls around – Wellington in New Zealand in February next year – Powell may have a very different set of names to choose from. Senatla, Kolbe, Smith and Ryno Benjamin will all be back in training for the Super Rugby season, although injury always stalks players who put their bodies on the line for their country.
Many miles on the clock
Cecil Afrika, playmaker of the team, is only 26, but there are an awful lot of miles on his clock. If, as seems likely, the Blitzbokke qualify automatically at the end of this season for the 2016 Rio Olympics, there is no guarantee that Afrika will be in the travelling squad. Treu recalled how they had to nurse Afrika through the 2012-13 season.
He said: “There are 42 minutes of rugby on the first day of a tournament and we would manage it so that he only played 21 minutes. Then, assuming we made the quarterfinals on day two, he might start off the bench there and then we had the option of him being fresh in the run-on side for the semifinals and final. We were prepared to manage him that way because we knew what he meant to the team.”
Last weekend in Port Elizabeth Afrika was managed to perfection and along the way overtook Fabian Juries as the highest points scorer to date for South Africa in the Sevens code. As it happened, the weekend also marked the end of Treu’s association with Kenya. It was not a happy time and perhaps in hindsight the omens were not good when, just a few days before he was due to fly to his new life, the atrocities at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi happened.
When Treu started he sat the squad down and set his stall out. He said: “I asked them what they wanted to achieve and they said they wanted to be the best in the world.”
The problem was he was now dealing with old-fashioned amateurs who had to place work and studies ahead of training. It was a culture shock for Treu, who announced his resignation ahead of last week’s tournament.
It is Kenya’s loss but South Africa’s gain that Treu has now joined the coaching staff at Western Province and the Stormers. WP won the Currie Cup this year, but it is no secret that the director of rugby, Gert Smal, has been looking for a succession plan to the seat currently occupied by Allister Coetzee. Treu has gone as far as he can in Sevens and is ready to take the next step. It may even come as early as the 2015 Currie Cup. Whatever the case, WP have secured the services of a man who places planning and integrity at the top of his list. He will not let them down.