After qualifying for the Olympics twice, only to have their place taken away by their own National Olympic Committee, South Africa will finally take their place at an Olympic Games after winning the African qualifier - and the support of the NOC.
Their aim was to win the Rugby Africa Women's Sevens Olympic Qualifier and secure their spot to the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, and that is exactly what the Springbok Sevens team did in Tunisia on Sunday.
And for that effort by his players – they beat Kenya by 12-7 in the final after an earlier 31-0 victory over Zambia in the semi-finals – head coach Renfred Dazel said he will be forever grateful.
“I feel so happy for the players who worked so hard to achieve this – we were denied in 2016 and 2020, but this time it is official, and it’s such a great feeling,” said Dazel. "We knew Kenya was going to be a tough opponent and I told the players that defence will win us this one. We did really well in the first half, but could not convert all our pressure into points, so when they took the lead in the second half, we had to fight hard. “But once again, like in the Challenger Series final, we had the fight in us for the win and it was a great comeback.”
The Springbok Sevens team earlier in the year secured core status on the revamped HSBC SVNS after winning the Challenger Series in Stellenbosch, and Dazel said qualifying for the Olympic Games will further boost their profile.
“It is huge for our system and it is huge for women's rugby in the country overall,” he said.“There will be more opportunities now for girls to come and play rugby, so winning this weekend was immense for the women's game. The future looks bright.”
Rights Mkhari, one of the team’s co-captains, said the players are very proud about their achievement, especially since they had to stick together and fight back from 7-5 down to win the final.
“We had to dig deep and fight hard and that is a great feeling,” said Mkhari. “We are emotional and proud right now. No one gave up, we kept pushing and playing for the teammate next to you. In the end, that was the difference and we scored when it mattered.”
Mkhari insisted that this victory will help grow the game amongst the youth: “That is one of the reasons we are so happy, this win opened the doors and now other can follow.”
One of the players who was denied in 2020, Nadine Roos, said there is relief to know they have now booked their tickets to Paris next year. “The dream came true and what makes it even better, is the fact that our hard work over months was rewarded today,” she said. “This is a huge boost for our system and to our management, they deserve a huge thank you too. We came well prepared and as in the Challenger Series, we finished top.”
Roos agreed with Mkhari that the win bodes well for growth in the women's game in South Africa: “We want to be role models and pace setters for others to follow and this win shows us that we are on the right track. We made it hard work out there today, we are a better team than this, but credit to Kenya, who wanted it desperately as well. But we can now put this one behind us as another successful mission completed and start looking at the next challenge, the World Series. Exiting times indeed.”
The victory against Kenya, by 12-7, came in a very tightly contested final. The South Africans were forced to defend for large portions of the match.
Roos scored the opening try late in the first half after they fumbled a few earlier opportunities to see South Africa take a 5-0 lead at the break.
Kenya hit back from the restart though, pouncing on a mistake by South Africa as Sharon Auma's converted try gave them a 7-5 lead. The Kenyans held onto the ball, forcing SA to defend, which they did very well and when given an opportunity, Maria Tshiremba scored from a set piece move, with Roos adding the conversion to make it 12-7.
Although South Africa and Kenya reached the final as expected, there were several surprise results earlier in a competition that was much more unpredictable and closely fought than in previous editions.
Right from the start north Africa's traditional powerhouse - Tunisia - lost to Uganda, their first home defeat to the east Africans, and in the second round Zambia beat rising stars Madagascar in a close game, 17-15.
With no quarter-finals on Day 2, this put these two fancied teams out of the running when they also lose to top seeds South Africa and Kenya respectively - though Madagascar made the Kenyans work hard for a 20-17 win.
Zambia and Uganda were unable to repeat their heroics on Day 2 in the semi-finals, but Uganda won the third place game that will see them and Kenya have one more attempt at qualifying at the repechage nexy year.
Pool A: Tunisia 5-12 Uganda; South Africa 26-5 Zimbabwe; Tunisia 26-5 Zimbabwe; South Africa 19-0 Uganda; Uganda 22-0 Zimbabwe; South Africa 27-7 Tunisia
Pool B: Kenya 27-0 Zambia; Madagascar 34-10 Ghana; Kenya 41-0 Ghana; Madagascar 15-17 Zambia; Zambia 15-10 Ghana; Madagascar 17-20 Kenya
5th-8th Place Semi Finals: Tunisia 24-5 Ghana; Madagascar 15-10 Zimbabwe
Semi-Finals: South Africa 31-0 Zambia; Kenya 27-0 Uganda
7th Place: Ghana 0-10 Zimbabwe
5th Place: Tunisia 5-25 Madagascar
3rd Place: Zambia 10-29 Uganda
Final: South Africa 12-7 Kenya