Neil Powell’s nine-year golden reign as Blitzboks head coach may be defined by the wins – of which there were many – but those within South Africa’s rugby sevens programme will tell you his influence goes much deeper.
As humble a man as you could wish to meet, Powell quietly went about revolutionising the setup in Stellenbosch, without any fanfare, to produce a brilliant team and, most importantly to him, brilliant men.
High standards on the field were matched by those off it, and Angelo Davids, one of the many players he has developed, was fighting back the tears when asked about Powell’s influence following the end of the Blitzboks' Rugby World Cup Sevens 2022 campaign.
Davids’ father walked out of his life at a young age and after looking for fatherly guidance in other places, he found it on joining the South African Rugby Sevens Academy in 2018.
For Davids, Powell has been more than a coach. “Whenever we speak about Neil Powell, it always hits me deep. He was the man who changed me; he was the guy who told me that I could make it; the guy who was there when I needed a father; he was the guy who told me to never give up, to keep going, to keep believing,” he said.
“So for him, I want to thank him for what he did in my life. I’m going to miss him a hell of a lot - and I love him so much.”
Rollcall of success
Outside of New Zealand legend Gordon Tietjens, no other coach can match Powell in terms of long-term success.
The Olympic Games gold medal may have eluded South Africa during his time at the helm but three World Series titles, 37 Cup final appearances in 75 Series tournaments, two Commonwealth Games gold medals and bronze medals in both the Olympics and Rugby World Cup Sevens makes for a wonderful track record.
Powell didn’t get the fairytale ending that many hoped for and probably deserved at Rugby World Cup Sevens 2022, but the reception he received from the Cape Town crowd following the Blitzboks' seventh-place finish spoke volumes for how highly he is regarded.
After the 35-5 win over Samoa, his final match before taking on a director of rugby role in 15s at the Sharks, Powell reflected on a number of highlights in his 15-year career as a player and 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 system has grown into this amazing system where the people have got good manners, got a great culture and are respectful and disciplined.
“Young men come into the system and they develop and grow into adults, and they walk out of there mature and disciplined and respectful. It was great to be a part of it and I am so honoured for the time that I spent in the system."