Speedster Seabelo Senatla is the leading Sevens rugby player in the world but is now taking aim at glory in the 15-man game as he targets a first cap for South Africa’s Springboks this season with one eye on the 2019 World Cup in Japan.
A young Senatla dreamed of being an Olympic sprinter and idolized American 100-meters star Marion Jones, but it is with the oval ball in hand where he has risen to global fame and achieved his aim of appearing at the Olympics.
Athletics was always his first love, with a passion for rugby only coming once he had left school, but it still satisfies his need for speed.
“I loved Jones,” Senatla tells FORBES AFRICA. “After every race of hers I watched, I would go outside and mimic her running, trying to be as fast as I could.”
“I remember later, at nine years old, going out with my dad, who had plastic bags that he would use to simulate the sound of a starter’s pistol, and I would be off, fast as I could.”
“I just love running, still to this day. It was always my dream to run the 100-meters at the Olympics. I feel so free when I’m running; I imagine like a horse must feel when they are in full gallop.”
Senatla is already the leading try-scorer in Springbok Sevens history with 189 and the 24-year-old says that having made the switch to 15s, he will not be lost to that format completely, with the 2018 Commonwealth Games and the next Olympics in Tokyo in 2020 to look forward to.
But, in between those tournaments is the chance for the dreadlocked try-machine to be a part of the Bok squad that competes in the 15-man World Cup in two years’ time having taken up his contract with South Africa’s Cape Town-based Stormers Super Rugby franchise this season.
It has been a momentous few years for the Welkom-born flyer, who admits he never saw rugby as a serious career path until he left the Riebeeckstad High School in the Free State province’s mining city.
“I only played socially at school to be honest. I never took it seriously at all; it was just a chance to play with my mates, enjoy the tours and have some fun.”
“But after I finished school I decided to take a gap year before tertiary education. I was invited to the Harmony Sports Academy [in Virginia in the Free State] and that really opened by eyes.”
“There I was working with people who lived and breathed rugby, and put everything into the game. Everything changed for me. I was in a proper, professional rugby environment for the first time and that grew my passion for the game. I went from loving the social side, to loving playing.”
Oddly for a player of his extreme pace, Senatla says he barely played as a wing in his formative years.
“I was always the smaller type, so I was scrumhalf and then moved around a bit, to center and fullback. I actually never played wing for my school.”
It was while studying at the Central University of Technology in Bloemfontein and playing for his provincial Under-19 and -20 sides that Senatla started leaning towards a career in rugby.
“I could see there was something there. I could see this was something that could feed me and my family. I won a contract to play Sevens and then was called-up to the  Junior Rugby World Cup squad in 15s, and it has gone on from there.”
Sevens has grown in glamour in recent years and is now a sport played at the Olympics. Senatla helped South Africa to the bronze medal in Rio de Janeiro last year, despite being injured for the latter stages of the tournament.
He was undoubtedly the best player on the Sevens circuit in 2016 and was honored as such by being named World Rugby Sevens Player of the Year.
He still has ambitions in that format, like turning Olympic bronze into gold and winning the Sevens World Cup, but for now there is another global prize that has caught his eye.
Having returned to Super Rugby with the Stormers in 2017, he is gunning for a place in Allister Coetzee’s Bok squad this year and was called up for a training camp in March.
“It’s obviously a very different challenge and basically a different game altogether,” he says. “I’m getting back into it slowly, but luckily the team I am at are a great bunch of guys who create a great environment to be in.”
“They play to a system-based structure, which is what I am used to in Sevens, where everybody knows there roles and moves in the same direction. So I am in the right team to develop.”
“There is no doubt my aim is to acquire the Springbok jersey and that is what I am working towards. The next World Cup [in 15s] is the big target. Imagine, I could win the World Cup in 15s and Sevens; that would be really something!”
Senatla says he views his career in phases – the first of which is now complete as he begins the second.
“The first phase was for me to play a lot of Sevens, supplemented with a bit of 15s, to help me develop my skills. Sevens is the best development any rugby player can have because of the skills needed to play the game,” he says.
“The second phase was to move to 15s on a more permanent basis, playing just limited Sevens. I want to remain in 15s for quite a few years, but obviously that depends on my contract situation.”
There is something else that drives him too. His mother, Patricia, was a fine netball player, but was denied the opportunity to compete on the international stage. He believes he gets his athletic ability from her side rather than father Bery, who is a police detective in Welkom.
“My mom was very good at netball, but apartheid took the chance of competing internationally away from her. Now I have the opportunity, it is a chance I want to use to the maximum. I feel very blessed, very lucky and very driven to succeed.”
More success is on the horizon for Senatla and the speedster plans to get there quickly.
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