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Westons' remarkable road back to Springbok team

SPOTLIGHT: In 2017 Shona-Leah Westons’ rugby career with the Springbok Women took a tumble, literally and figuratively.

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Weston, a dual Springbok Women’s player with five Test caps to her name and a member of the national sevens squad who had just secured World Series status in 2014, stepped into a manhole and seriously injured her ankle.

By the time she recovered, the women’s rugby landscape had changed as well. The fifteens programme, which was put on ice after the 2014 World Cup, was slowly coming back into life, while the sevens squad suffered the consequences of being denied the opportunity to participate in the 2016 Olympic Games.

“Things were not great at the time, to be honest – I thought my playing career was over and seeing the setbacks to the women’s teams, I did not really see much sense in trying to make a comeback, so I rather focussed on getting back to full capacity as a personal trainer,” said Weston at the Stellenbosch Academy of Sport, where the Springbok Women’s Sevens squad are preparing for the opening legs of the 2024 SVNS in Dubai and Cape Town.

Weston’s return to the team she speaks so passionately about, is another fascinating development in her career.

“At the end of the COVID-pandemic and the halt to all rugby in that time, I started to think about a comeback,” she said.

“The fact that the national programmes were also gaining momentum again helped in that final decision to give it another go. I played for the Sharks Women in the Women’s Premier Division and then decided to join the sevens programme of the San Clemente Rhinos out in California.”

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The decision to join the Rhinos turned out a great one, as the likes of Frankie Horne, Justin Benn, Waisale Serevi and later Cecil Afrika all coached the side, but it turned out even better for Weston when the Rhinos, as part of their plans to set up an Academy in Gordon’s Bay, travelled to South Africa.

Weston excelled for the team in their fifteens warm-up match against the Springbok Women in September and last month, for their sevens outfit against the Springbok Women’s Sevens.

“My heart pounded when Renfred [Dazel], who coached me when I last played for the team, called me afterwards and asked if I will join the squad again,” she admitted.

“There were so many emotions, but never doubt that I would say yes. In fact, that was always part of the trigger from me to make a comeback after COVID.

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“There are so many good things happening with the team at the moment, there is clarity on where they are going, there is a purpose and a clear direction on what they want to achieve, something that lacked in previous years.”

The call to join the squad was also well received by the Rhinos coaching staff: “They knew how much I wanted this and how hard I worked to get into contention again, so they were happy for me. I know and coach Renfred made it clear, that I need to prove in training that I can make the team and I am 100% in agreement.”

Weston said the wider purpose in the squad was the biggest change from previous years.

“The leadership is very strong and that provides a lot of clarity and direction – this team know where they are going and what is needed to get there,” she said.

“We want to stay on the circuit and next year want to be competitive at the Olympics.”

Playing in the Olympic Games is unfinished business for Weston, who would have been part of the team to Rio in 2016 and also represented South Africa in judo: “I always wanted to be part of the Olympics and the fact that I can have another chance is just beyond words.

“When I phoned my mother to tell her I have been invited back to the team, her first words were that my Olympic dreams are still alive indeed.”

The Springbok Women’s Sevens team to play in Dubai will be named next week. South Africa will also name a Springbok Women’s Sevens ‘A’ side that will play in the international invitational tournament in Dubai, where they were runners up last year.

Weston, who last played in national colours in Dubai way back in 2015, will most likely play in the latter, but that is not stopping her focus.

“Coach Renfred knows me from the last time I played, and I trust his judgement. I will work very hard to prove myself in this set-up, that is the only given. For now, I am just taking it all in and savouring the opportunity to be back with this team I care so much about, and fight shoulder to shoulder to improve every day.”

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