South Africa’s failure to get beyond the quarter-finals of the Tokyo Olympics after losing to an Argentinian side reduced to five men cut the Blitzboks deep.
The squad returned home frustrated that they hadn’t been able to show their best and improve on the bronze medal finish achieved at Rio in 2016.
Star forward JC Pretorius admits the healing process was painful at times but says the Blitzboks are now ready to bounce back when international rugby sevens returns in Canada.
Stakeholders in the game have worked tirelessly with World Rugby to schedule tournaments in Vancouver (18-19 September) and Edmonton (26-26 September), overcoming serious logistical challenges on the way.
And Pretorius is grateful to have the chance to put things right on the field so soon after the Olympics, especially at one of his all-time favourites destinations.
“I am extremely excited because my third or fourth tournament on the World Series was in Canada (in March 2019) and I was selected for the Vancouver Dream Team so it brings a lot of good memories, and I like Canada because I am a person who likes the cold!” said Pretorius, who welcomed the unseasonal snow showers that fell in the Cape Town area the other week.
Comparisons with Kwagga
Pretorius had made his HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series debut a month earlier in the much sunnier climes of Sydney and appeared in four further tournaments that year.
In the truncated 2020 season, Pretorius kicked on again and his physicality at the breakdown and refusal to give in helped him win a place in the overall World Series Dream Team.
Possessing those attributes and coming from the same school as Springbok Kwagga Smith in Middleburg, inevitably led to comparisons being made between the two players.
“It’s very nice to be compared to a guy who has been playing well in the 15s side or the sevens side and is known around the globe, but it got to a certain stage where I was like, ‘I want to be myself, I want to be JC Pretorius, not Kwagga Smith’.”
Smith’s first start at number eight for the Springboks against the British and Irish Lions in July drew some criticism. But in the two tests that followed, he made a big impact off the bench as the Springboks wrapped up a 2-1 series win.
Pretorius is now hoping for a similar turnaround in fortunes having finally put the Olympics disappointment to bed.
“When we got back from the Olympics, we had two weeks off,” he said.
“For the first week, I thought I’ll go to my parents and they’ll nurse me and will say everything is fine. But I was still hurting.
“I tried surrounding myself with friends in Cape Town but everywhere you went people would ask ‘what went wrong?’ or they’d say, ‘you didn’t play well’ and other nasty stuff.
“So, for the last week, I decided to make myself even ’smaller’ and it was just myself and my girlfriend. That’s when I was able to have the next ‘why?’ in my life, to think about the Olympics, and the pain and disappointment I felt, and to turn it into a hunger to step up my game in every aspect.
“We also had a couple of meetings with our psychologist, just to put everything behind us.
“The Olympics is in the past now and we are just looking forward to playing in the next two tournaments. You can feel the vibe in the squad.”
Ready for a tough test
The HSBC Canada Sevens events in Vancouver and Edmonton will include 12 men’s teams alongside a ‘Fast Four’ women’s competition.
In the men’s Series event, South Africa will compete with fellow core teams Canada, France, Great Britain, Ireland, Kenya, Spain and the USA, alongside invitation teams from Chile, Germany, Hong Kong and Jamaica.
Regular core teams Argentina, Australia, Fiji, Japan, New Zealand and Samoa are unable to participate due to travel restrictions.
The Blitzboks will be one of the fancied teams as a result of their absence but Pretorius says nothing will be taken for granted.
“We can’t go into the tournament relaxed because, how do I say it, the ‘top-tier’ teams are not there,” he said.
“It is sevens and the ball can roll into anyone’s hands. I remember when we played against Chile for the first time in the USA and we drew that game; we went into the game very chilled and they surprised us.”
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