'My country called and I had to answer': Afrika on return to BlitzBoks
SEVENS INTERVIEW: He did not know what the question was going to be when he saw an incoming call from Springbok Sevens coach Neil Powell, but Cecil Afrika instinctively knew the answer.
The question was whether the most prolific points’ scorer in a Blitzbok jersey was willing to join the Springbok Sevens team one more time. The answer was yes, but Afrika revealed on Tuesday he first told Powell that he will phone him back in five minutes.
“I was with my fiancé, Adrielle Armoed, in Port Elizabeth, busy with our wedding arrangements [they are getting married in December] and we on our way to the wedding venue when coach Neil phoned,” said Afrika, recalling the phone call that changed his plans for this Rugby World Cup Sevens tournament.
“I had no idea that he was going to ask me to join, although I have sent him messages in the past, perhaps more jokingly than anything else, like before the Commonwealth Games, telling him I am available. I asked if I can phone him back, as I just needed to chat to Adrielle, but I knew the answer. My country called and I had to answer.”
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The fact that he had other engagements, like doing touchline commentary and some other World Rugby commitments at the 2022 event, did not even feature in his mind. As soon as Adrielle agreed that it was an opportunity Afrika had to seize, the return call to Powell was about logistics and getting him to Stellenbosch.
Fast forward eight days and Afrika is now – again – kitted in the green and gold and discussing running lines, angles, rush defence and restarts with Powell, assistant coach, Renfred Dazel, and other stalwarts such as Selvyn Davids, Siviwe Soyizwapi and Ryan Oosthuizen. The integration back into the team was seamless, as if he never left.
“The muscle memory came back straight away,” Afrika explained with a broad smile on Tuesday.
“I am very clear on what coach Neil and coach Renfred want out of the game; I have played for them for a long time. It did take a little longer to process the whole plan, as I was away from the team for a while, but it is all coming back to me.
“It was a bit emotional, taking all in and knowing that I am back where I always felt at home, but that aside, we have a job to do this weekend.
“I was always one to ask a lot of questions at training and that has not changed, so I got all my answers early. It was always great to see how the rest of the squad embraced me and welcomed me back into the team. That was a great feeling.”
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Afrika played at two Cape Town Sevens events and is well aware of the huge support the home team get in the Mother City: “That is massive energy coming to you and the swell of support lifts the team. We must use that to our advantage and send off coach Neil on a high note, so that he can start his new job on a high as well,” said Afrika.
The opportunity to play in a Rugby World Cup is one thing, to do so in your own country is even more special and Afrika is adamant that this should not be an opportunity wasted.
“We must embrace this honour and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he said. “This is a wonderful chance for us to be part of something special. I told the guys when I joined that I would give everything I have to assist the team. Whatever is expected of me, I will do.”
Dazel said Afrika’s return was a breath of fresh air: “Cecil is an outgoing person in a team environment anyway, but his enthusiasm and encouragement already rubbed off on everybody in a good way.
“He came knocking on the door with some questions and to get up to speed with what we wanted from him and his roles and responsibilities, so it’s great to have that rub off on the rest of the players. Cecil is class and it is there for everyone to see.”
For Dazel, the focus this week will also be slightly different from a normal tournament week.
“We have seven guys who have not played at the Cape Town Stadium and added to that, the emotions of Neil’s last tournament are also at play, so we need to be aware of that in this week’s preparations,” said Dazel.
“The week went well so far; we have trained well. We had two double sessions already and things are going well. We have four games to do the business.”