Africa’s Olympic hopefuls have been put through their paces on and off the pitch over the past few weeks, as Solidarity Sevens Camps were held in both Tunis and Stellenbosch.
Part of Rugby Africa’s #AfricaAsOne campaign, the camps featured men’s and women’s teams from the continent that have either qualified for Tokyo 2020 or are due to compete in next month’s Olympic repechage tournament in Monaco.
The women’s event ran from 29 April-9 May in Tunis and featured the hosts Tunisia, Madagascar and Kenya. The men’s Solidarity Sevens, meanwhile, took place between 6-16 May, as South Africa, who fielded two sides, took on Kenya, Uganda, Zimbabwe and a team from the Stellenbosch Academy of Sport.
The biggest upset in the 26 matches played so far at the Solidarity Sevens Camp. South Africa 🇿🇦 2 beating their South Africa 🇿🇦 1 by 21-12 late Friday afternoon. Not totally unexpected though, it was after all a mini trial match for Olympic selection. pic.twitter.com/LCrABc3XNG— Rugby Afrique (@RugbyAfrique) May 14, 2021
According to Springbok Sevens high performance manager, Marius Schoeman, the tournament represented an integral staging post on the road to Tokyo.
“It was fantastic, not just for us but for all the teams, just to be on the field again and to have some quality opposition,” Schoeman told World Rugby.
“The main thing for us was just to be back on the pitch because we missed out on the Spain event and the Dubai event earlier [in the year].
“So, that was actually our first outing, just to test the players. We've got some players back from 15s, players like Ruhan Nel, who just joined us the week before.
“So, it was good just to test the guys a bit.”
Despite not being able to send teams to the Madrid Sevens in February or last month’s Dubai International Sevens, the hosts showed their class in Stellenbosch.
South Africa 1 lost just one match across the two weekends — to South Africa 2 — while their squad mates’ two defeats came at the hands of Kenya.
The Springbok Sevens finished the camp strongly, too, beating Zimbabwe 36-0 before signing off from the camp with a 31-5 win against Kenya.
“This is essential,” Schoeman added, “it's so important. A lot of the teams had an opportunity to get onto the pitch in Madrid and Dubai, so we were a little bit on the back foot.
“So, when this came along, the Solidarity Sevens, we were really very happy. I think coach Neil [Powell] is very happy to test some of the players because like all the other countries, we have to select our final Olympic squads, and it's a great opportunity to obviously use this as trials for the Olympics.”
For Tunisia and Madagascar’s women, and Uganda and Zimbabwe’s men, the Solidarity Sevens Camps provided vital preparation time for the upcoming Olympic repechage tournament.
Solid end to their visit to South Africa for the @RugbyCranes . Uganda 🇺🇬 defeated Zimbabwe 🇿🇼 36-7 in their last encounter at the Sevens Solidarity Camp in Stellenbosch to finish third in the final standings.#AfricaAsOne pic.twitter.com/6RcsWpooEY— Rugby Afrique (@RugbyAfrique) May 15, 2021
Uganda coach Tolbert Onyango had been able to take his squad to Dubai in April, but he welcomed the opportunity to test his squad against the best teams from Africa as he prepares for Monaco.
“It is a historic moment for Uganda and for African teams,” he said. “It's the first time we've gotten together, really, for a common cause.
“So, Uganda, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Kenya, the top sevens sides are working together towards a common cause — so it was very good from that point of view.
“Competition-wise, it is also good for Uganda. We got to face different prospects from all the teams that were present, some very pacey, some very physical. So, it was good to test us in different ways.”
It was not only on the pitch that the teams came together. In both Tunis and Stellenbosch Rugby Africa organised meetings and talks for the coaches, while there were also opportunities to take part in World Rugby-accredited courses.
“The environment of the camp was super,” Kenya men’s sevens head coach Innocent Simiyu said.
“It was one of the best camps that I ever participated in, in regards to the activities that were also happening outside the pitch. Our players managed to do Level 1 coaching, our management team managed to do Level 2 coaching.
“Then we managed to have workshops on leadership, on the analysis and expectations of the game, where it is going, through Neil Powell. And, we also [had a talk] on the psychological part of the game by Dr Ross Tucker, which was very inspiring.”
He added: “We were quite happy with the whole package of the camp because for us, it's really up-skilled the players and the management and also gave us an opportunity to test the focus areas that we had in regards to our game.”
Simiyu would welcome the camps becoming an annual event. “We hope that at least we could be having it once a year,” he added.
“Because South Africa is a big brother and there's a lot to learn from them and also for them to learn from us, and us to learn from the other African countries.
“So, I think for us, if it can be done once a year, it could be a very big boost for Africa.”