Nine years after being relegated, South Africa will return to the World Series having won both legs of the Challenger Series.
The Women Boks are back in the Sevens World Series.
After so many knock-backs – in some instances self-inflicted by South Africa’s own sports bodies – South Africa will return as a core team for the first time since the 2014-15 season.
At the end of that season they were relegated, along with China, but a few months were favourites to bounce back before they were surprisingly knocked out by Ireland in the semi-finals of the qualifier (they had beaten Ireland comfortably in the pools).
A year later they had another a great chance of returning in 2016 when the Olympic Games would be the qualifier.
But this was the first instance where South Africa’s own sports administers under-mined their own team. Despite being comfortably the best team in Africa, SASCOC – the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee – refused to allow them to attend the Games in Rio because they had failed to match the criteria they imposed on the men’s team, that is to show that they were a medal contender by finishing in the top four of the World Series.
As South Africa’s women were not even in the World Series this seemed grossly unfair, but - despite protests from the SARU - SASCOC stood firm, pointing out that the SARU had agreed to their qualification rules.
A year later South Africa again fell at the final hurdle in the qualifier for the 2017/18 series, losing in the qualifier final to Japan. The same thing happened again a year after that when they again lost in the final, this time to China.
The next year it was the adminsitrators who again ended their qualfication hopes. The 2019 qualifier offered two places to best two teams in the 2018 African Sevens. Despite a poor Commonwealth Games (where they had lost to Kenya for the second time in two weeks) South Africa would very likely have taken one of those spots, but on their return from the Games the SARU said that they would not now be competing in the African 7s, despite it taking place in neighbouring Botswana. It was never officially stated that the team had been withdrawn, but this remains the only instance where South Africa have failed to compete in their regional championship.
South Africa then qualified for the 2020 Olympics, but again SASCOC would not let them attend.
The COVID pandemic the further reduced South Africa's playing opportunities, and in the 2022 qualifier – now called the “Challenger” – they could only finish ninth.
Now – at last – the Boks are back, winning the new two-leg Challenge series without losing a game.
Their only slip-up was in the first round of pool matches in last weekend’s first leg, when they drew with Czechia.
This weekend they were clearly in a mood to not make any mistakes. The Boks won their pool conceding just one try, to Madagascar, and by the time the quarter-finals came knew that they had racked up such a points difference advantage that realistically all they need do was reach the final in order to return to the Series after a nine year absence.
In their quarter against Colombia that further enhanced their points difference with a 31-0 win.
Following the first leg, South Africa’s rivals were Belgium (who they had beaten in the first final), China (who had ended third), and Poland (who had finished fourth).
Poland’s bid ended at the quarter-final stage when they lose of fellow Europeans, Czechia 17-5.
China and Belgium both reach the semis, but the draw pitted them against each other, while South Africa met surprise semi-finalists Czechia, who the Boks knocked aside 24-0.
Belgium – with their five semi-pro players - put in a great performance to beat China in the other semi 22-5, leading to a repeat of the first leg final. The only difference being that Belgium would have to win by 44 points or more to reach the Series.
It proved to be a great final with lead changing hands repeatedly. Belgium pulled 14-12 ahead in the 12th minute only for South Africa to steal the game from the final play.
Despite just missing out, Belgium’s performance in making both finals was an impressive outcome after awarding semi-pro contacts for the first time at the end of last year to five players - Cécile Blondiau, Margaux Lalli, Emilie Musch, Manon Nairac, and Margaux Stevin. It will be fascinating to see how they perform in the European Championships in a few weeks’ time.
Asian Champions China will be deeply disappointed to come away with just two third-place finishes. Having beaten World Series core team Japan in two of the three legs of last year’s Asian 7s they must have expected to do better but lost to both South Africa and Belgium in crucial semi-finals.
European Champions Poland will also have hoped to have done better, their performance this weekend being particularly disappointing, drawing with Hong Kong and losing to European rivals Czechia for the first time since 2014.
The Czechs, however, must be delighted with their fortnight in Stellenbosch. But for two loses on the second day of the first leg (when a stomach bug was circulating among some teams) they might have done even better than the fifth and fourth places.
Amongst the other teams, Mexico were unable to repeat their first leg heroics and ended 12th, Paraguay had a much better three days with a win against Thailand being a highlight as they ended 8th. Thailand and Madagascar will both have been disappointed to miss out on the last eight having done so well in the first leg.
For the winners there will be time to celebrate – but they will also know that the World Series itself will be a massive step-up. Relegation returns to the agenda next season and they will have a fight on their hands.
Pool D: Thailand 19-7 Madagascar; South Africa 29-0 Paraguay; Thailand 12-26 Paraguay; South Africa 19-5 Madagascar; Madagascar 12-7 Paraguay; South Africa 38-0 Thailand
Pool E: Czechia 24-17 Colombia; Belgium 43-0 Papua New Guinea; Czechia 15-10 Papua New Guinea; Belgium 12-5 Colombia; Colombia 19-7 Papua New Guinea; Belgium 19-5 Czechia
Pool F: Poland 17-17 Hong Kong; China 43-7 Mexico; Poland 39-7 Mexico; China 29-0 Hong Kong; Hong Kong 19-7 Mexico; China 24-7 Poland
Quarter-Finals: Belgium 40-5 Hong Kong; China 39-0 Paraguay; Czechia 17-5 Poland; South Africa 31-0 Colombia
9th-12th Place Semi-Finals: Madagascar 24-0 Mexico; Thailand 34-0 Papua New Guinea
5th-8th Place Semi Finals: Hong Kong 12-5 Paraguay; Poland 14-12 Colombia
Semi-Finals Belgium 22-5 China; Czechia 0-24 South Africa
11th Place: Mexico 10-24 Papua New Guinea
9th Place: Madagascar 14-22 Thailand
7th Place: Colombia 24-0 Paraguay
5th Place: Hong Kong 10-24 Poland
3rd Place: China 31-15 Czechia
Final: South Africa 17-14 Belgium