Powell reflects with pride on golden era for Blitzboks
His golden reign as international sevens coach came to a disappointing end in Cape Town during Rugby World Cup Sevens this weekend, where the Springbok Sevens finished seventh, but for Neil Powell, the nine years at the helm of one of South Africa’s most popular sports teams remained a “time he will never regret”.
The Blitzboks had a down and up day on Sunday, losing their fifth-place playoff to Argentina before bouncing back in style with a comprehensive dismantling of Samoa in the seventh-place playoff.
Afterwards, Powell reflected on his career, first as a player and captain for the Blitzboks and then as coach, as he concluded his last duties as coach at Rugby World Cup Sevens 2022.
Powell's nine-year career as Springbok Sevens coach heralded a golden era for the Blitzboks. They won three HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series titles and in the 75 World Series tournaments he presided over the team, they played in 37 Cup Finals, winning 22.
Incidentally, Powell remains the only person in Rugby Sevens who has a World Series gold medal as player and coach amongst his accolades.
The Blitzboks also won two Commonwealth Games gold medals and claimed two bronze medals in the first Rugby Sevens event at the Olympic Games in 2016, and the previous Rugby World Cup Sevens, in San Francisco in 2018.
Powell reflected on a number of highlights in his career of over 15 years as a player and a coach.
“I would like to remember the wins, like our very first one in the World Series in Wellington, my very first one in South Africa as a coach, when we won in the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium only a couple of days after President Mandela had passed away, and of course the World Series wins, especially the second one in 2018, when we beat England in the last game of the series to be crowned champions,” said Powell.
“Then the Commonwealth gold wins also, but the thing I will treasure most will be the human beings I coached. I saw many of them develop into fantastic people and that was more important than gold.”
The fairytale ending – South Africa winning gold on home soil in his last tournament – did not materialise, but for the coach, there were no regrets, especially after the squad brushed off earlier defeats against Ireland in the quarter-finals and Argentina for a spot in the fifth-place final to finish off in style, beating Samoa in commanding fashion in the seventh place final.
Powell said the result against Samoa was a much better reflection of his team's ability and resolve and he thanked the players for sending him off with such a resounding win.
“It was a very clinical win, and it did reflect on our fortunes of the weekend,” said Powell.
“When we were clinical, we delivered a result like this and when we weren't, like against Ireland and Argentina, we came up short. It does sum up the reality of sevens rugby – if you are slightly off your game, you pay the price.
“Sadly, we only pitched the perfect game in the final of our four games and one can reflect on why. Me as coach certainly did some of that and with hindsight, I can point to a lack of raw matches for this particular 12-man group. We did not play any matches as a team and that is something that most likely worked against us.
“We had a great time as a squad, with ninety percent more ups than downs. Sadly, this weekend and tournament will be remembered as one of the downs and it is not something that will get out of the memory bank soon.”
Powell felt that the hype around the Cape Town event did get to some of the players, adding that the squad felt like they let their spectators down.
“I won't say the emotion of the whole weekend was that much of a contributing factor, but a lot of the team played here for the first time, and it does get to you, especially because you are the home team,” he said.
“We did not play to their expectations, or ours for that matter, so we need to apologise for that.
“Although it was a World Cup, the majority of the spectators came to support us. When you run out that tunnel, you can feel the energy and hopefully the players learned from that and use that in a positive way when they come back in December.”
Powell said the players had to lot to prove: “A number of players will be moving on after this, four of five of them and myself as well, so there were a lot of emotions in this last match. I am just happy we could finish like this.”
Powell will commence his new role as the Cell C Sharks as director of rugby later this month.