TOKYO, 24 Oct – Among those participating at a third Rugby World Cup in Japan is a woman who never dared dream that she might one day have a chance of lifting the Webb Ellis Cup.
But the Springboks will lean heavily on diminutive Rene Naylor this weekend to ensure they are in the best possible shape to take on Wales in their semi-final.
As South Africa physiotherapist, Naylor has been a vital team member since first joining the two-time champions in 2008.
Her journey to the pinnacle of her profession in SA Rugby has not been easy, but she is now able to declare: "This is where I feel I belong."
Naylor started at the lowest level, club rugby, about two decades ago at a team called Silvertree in her native Cape Town.
Even after being appointed to the provincial team at Western Province, working with the Springbok team was furthest from her mind.
“Those years in club rugby taught me so much, and I am so grateful for it because you didn’t have as much support and resources as you do when you go up the levels,” Naylor said.
“I didn’t ever think about one day working with the Springboks. It was not an ambition of mine. I didn’t think they would choose a female.
“When I got to Western Province I thought, ‘OK, this is my platform’. When I worked with the Currie Cup team and then finally with the Stormers, I thought this was it for me, because the Springboks would never appoint a female physiotherapist.
“So, it was definitely the highlight in 2008 when I started with the Springboks.”
Naylor worked under coaches Peter de Villiers and then Heyneke Meyer, but took time out of the Bok environment after that to concentrate on her personal needs.
“My contract had come to an end, and looking at the new contract, I thought maybe I should focus on my business. And most importantly, it was motherhood. My son (Cullin) was two years old at the end of the 2015 World Cup, and I thought, ‘Let me try to be a full-time mom, work at my private practice’,” Naylor said.
“I think those two years were actually good for me. I feel I came back with a clear head, clear mind, clear vision of what I’d like to change as a physiotherapist with the Springbok team. Sometimes it’s not good to be in a position too long. You can also become complacent.”
She has certainly had no time to be complacent with the 2019 Springboks at the World Cup.
One of three team physiotherapists – Vivian Verwant and Tanushree Pillay are the others – she commands the respect of all the players despite being shorter than scrum-half Faf de Klerk.
“We have a joke at the moment in the physio department it's like a 7-11 – we open at 7am and close at 11pm! It’s long hours, you put in everything. With the World Cup, I think there is just a lot more at stake,” Naylor said.
“And yes, my day does start very early with my own training – I like to do my own running, or go to gym at six o’clock, and then seven o’clock we usually see guys if we are starting early.
“You do have some off time in the day when the guys are in technical sessions, so you will have an hour here or 45 minutes there, just to breathe a bit. Our hours then commence at night, after dinner, training and recovery, where I will be in the physio room.”
Naylor feels there is a “calm focus” within the Bok squad as they get ready to take on Wales and hopes it will be third time lucky for her after being with the team that failed in the quarter-finals in 2011 and then semi-finals four years ago.
“It’s an absolute honour and privilege to be part of this brand – it’s something bigger than you, and it is big for our country,” said Naylor.
“It has got so many symbolic meanings for our country, so it is special to be part of it. And if you are not part of it, you feel it. When I took a break for two years, thinking I’m going to retire, you come back and think ‘Did I make the right choice to come back?’, which was last year.
“And it was the best decision I could’ve made, because I feel this is where I want to be … this is where I feel I belong.”