Werner Kok arrived on the sevens scene more than a decade ago, out of the Western Province set-up and wondering where his career was heading. He wasn’t alone. Neil Powell, now his director of rugby at the storied Sharks franchise, drove this hungry South African group to new heights.

That was then and this is now. But the recently revamped HSBC SVNS 2024 series remains a carnival of noise and colour and breathtaking sport. And, yes, some shenanigans, too. Train hard, play hard, party hard. That’s how sevens players roll.

Don’t discount the efforts these incredible athletes invest in their game. Sevens is rugby’s least forgiving format. Skills and fitness are put under an intense microscope and dissected. Flaws are ruthlessly exposed over and over.

Second to second

“We were a bunch of desperate men who pulled together and tried to figure out how to play this game,” Kok said. “The way Neil Powell set that system up in Stellenbosch got the best out of us. He focused more on the person than the player, and if the person was almost perfect then the player would come, too.

“They don’t exaggerate when they say sevens is the best form of rugby. You have to put so much work in to get fit and do all the work a 15s player does in different positions – you must jump like a lock, scrum like a prop, hook like a hooker, tackle and steal like an openside flanker, you must be as quick as a wing and a centre. All that develops your game so much more going into 15s.

“You don’t have a lot of time in sevens, one mistake can cost you a tournament and there is not a lot of time to rectify it. We say in 15s we play minute to minute – in sevens, it’s second to second. You have to be on it.”

In nine years riding this rollercoaster, Kok won the series twice, as well as Commonwealth Games gold in 2014, bronze at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 and at the Rugby World Cup Sevens, plus a World Games title in Colombia.

He was named World Rugby Men’s Sevens Player of the Year 2015. He made lifelong friends and saw corners of the map he never thought he’d experience.

“You see so many places around the world, you meet so many people and become good mates. I’ve been to Las Vegas five times, I’ve been to London, Scotland, I want to go to Fiji to visit Jerry Tuwai and those boys. Every tournament is so different. It’s the party stage of rugby. It is phenomenal.”

For a time, sevens was seen as a side door into the top end of the 15s game. If no professional club contract was available, a player might be shipped off to his national sevens camp to address his skills and fitness. 

Cheslin Kolbe, famously overlooked for an age in South Africa, was a team-mate of Kok, alongside Kwagga Smith and later, Kurt-Lee Arendse. Six Nations champion Hugo Keenan and Scotland’s electric George Horne made their names in the abbreviated format.

Word of warning

Now, things have changed. Galacticos are descending upon the series this year, with the Paris Olympic lure glistening on the horizon. Antoine Dupont and Michael Hooper have signed up for France and Australia. More may follow. But there is no guarantee even these giants will flourish.

“When I started it got proper professional, the sevens player became a professional sevens player, not a stepping stone to the 15-player game,” said Kok.

“Now it is so tough to transition between the two. Guys can’t cope with the pace of the game, can’t react as quickly as they need to, especially in defence. Our system was always, if you make the tackle, you become the most important player which is the blocker behind the ruck. One mistake and it’s gone. You don’t have time to fix it. You have fast and strong players who are so skilful.

“You at least need a pre-season with a sevens team and five tournaments before even thinking of becoming a professional player, ready to play. That field will expose you.”

Cape Town party

The curtain was raised on this gripping rugby jamboree of HSBC SVNS 2024 last weekend in Dubai, one of its truly iconic destinations. The heat, the opulence, the vast expat community and the big-event atmosphere.

The Blitzboks claimed the men’s crown, and carry that early season momentum back to their own patch this weekend, as the series comes to Cape Town, another staggering city of vibrancy and beauty.

“To have an event like that over a weekend going into the festive season is just awesome,” Kok said. “Cape Town itself, at the southernmost point of South Africa, the ocean is a little cold but it’s phenomenal, the beaches are great, the nightlife is great, the food is insane.

“To have people from all over the world brings so much into our country and out of the people in our country, who know South Africa is rugby-crazy. To have a three-day dress-up party in Cape Town is phenomenal.”

Kok has played 15s permanently since 2020, but you can still see the hallmarks of his sevens upbringing. The all-action, box-office style. The explosive ruck cleanouts belying his position on the wing. The distinctive gait and the straggly hair billowing behind him, earning Kok the nickname ‘Tarzan’.

“Sevens really made me. I was there for nine years, I loved it, I didn’t want to leave, but I’ve played all over the world, done everything sevens could offer me. I needed a different challenge and I needed to look after my family financially going into the future.

“Sevens gave me everything I have at the moment – the player I am, the person I am off the field. It showed me so much respect for the game and other players.”

By Jamie Lyall