Two years after he was told to retire because of a chronic shoulder injury, Travis Ismaiel is set to make his debut for the Blitzboks on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series.

Blitzboks head coach Sandile Ngcobo has named Ismaiel in his squad for the two North American rounds of the 2023 Series, taking place in Los Angeles and Vancouver over the next two weekends.

Speaking about his call-up at the ripe old age of 30, Ismaiel says it was with a mixture of excitement and relief that he received the news.

“It's been a long journey and I have had to jump through lots of hoops to get here. It has taken a lot of hard work,” he said.

“With sevens, as we all know, you have to put in the yards and what you put in you'll get out.

“To be able to make a team of the Blitzboks' calibre is something special to me.

“It is something I have wanted to do for a long time so to do it now, after being out of the game for a while, is a very proud moment for me.”

Unlikely treble

Ismaiel was a member of the Junior Springboks side that won the World Rugby U20 Championship 2012 and was an unused replacement in the final against New Zealand.

But while that competition served as a springboard for team-mates Handrè Pollard, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Steven Kitshoff to become superstars of the game, Ismaiel had to wait a further six years to win what turned out to be his one and only senior cap, against Wales in Washington D.C.

Like plenty of the players on both sides that day in June 2018, that exhibition match turned out to be both the start and end of their test careers.

But now he find himself back in the USA and ready to complete the unlikeliest of trifectas.

Ismaiel was 18 months into his retirement, having been told to hang up his boots at the start of 2021, when he finally found himself pain free and the prospect of a comeback began to cross his mind.

And that second chance came when Marius Schoeman, South Africa Rugby's High-Performance Manager for Sevens, asked him to come and train with the Blitzboks in the build-up to this season’s Series.

Given what he has gone through, Ismaiel says playing on the Series will mean as much to him as his try-scoring Springbok debut in 2018.

“The fact that I ended up in Stellenbosch, training with the sevens guys, was a miracle itself – I never thought my shoulder would heal so well that I could just be functional again and even more so, start playing rugby again,” he said.

“The last couple of months have been so gratifying and to know that I am on my way to play for this team on the world stage, is really a special feeling.”

Ngcobo has also included Ronald Brown and Mfundo Ndhlovu in his squad as the Blitzboks look to consolidate their top four spot in the Series which would guarantee them qualification for the 2024 Olympics.  

The trio come in for Darren Adonis and Dalvon Blood, who picked up season-ending injuries in Sydney, and Shaun Williams, who sustained a knee injury at training this week.

South Africa have a mixed record in LA having won the tournament in 2020 but barely put up a fight in finishing 13th last year. They are paired with Ireland, Uruguay and Canada in Pool B.

African rivals Kenya are also set to field a debutant in footballer turned rugby player, Brunson Madigu.

The pacey 24-year-old half-back is the only new face in coach Damian McGrath’s squad.

“Madigu is a very exciting player full of talent…he brings in the x-factor that the team needs at this time. He understands the discipline and the huge responsibility of playing at a high level,” said McGrath.

“We are rebuilding hence the move to bring in at least one new player in every tour.”

Relegation-threatened Kenya will open their quest for a first Cup quarter-final appearance of the 2023 Series against reigning Series champions Australia in Pool C before meeting double Olympic champions Fiji and Japan.

Collier poised for his half-century

For Series leaders New Zealand, Dylan Collier will play in his 50th tournament as the All Blacks Sevens look for back-to-back tournament wins after winning in Sydney in round five.

Moses Leo returns and the inclusion of uncapped Fehi Fineanganofo is the only other change to Clark Laidlaw’s squad.

Meanwhile, France will be all the stronger for having Jean-Pascal Barraque back in their ranks.

Australia clinched their maiden Series title last year by winning the bronze medal in Los Angeles, but they will have to make do without injured interim captain Henry Hutchison as they look to make up lost ground in the standings.

Hutchison is carrying injuries to both knees and is also recovering from a sprained wrist and broken ribs.

Australia are eighth in the table, just behind a bunch of teams closely grouped together, including  Pool C opponents Fiji.

Just two points cover Samoa in third down to the USA in seventh, so the results of the next two rounds will likely have major implications on the race to secure a top-four Series finish and automatic Olympic qualification.

Fiji, who are currently in fifth, head to LA with four newcomers in their 13-man squad, including Army duo, Anasa Qaranivalu and Rokoua Rasaku and Alusio Vakadranu and Ponipate Loganimasi.

Other than their Cup win in Hamilton, Argentina have been nowhere near the medals but Santiago Gomez Cora has stuck with the same squad for the next two rounds as they look to improve on sixth place.

Hoping to add to their famous win on home soil in Las Vegas in 2019, the USA find themselves in a formidable pool with Samoa, New Zealand and Chile.

“We enter LA sitting in a disappointing seventh,” said USA head coach Mike Friday.

“The points spread differential between third and seventh being two points, nine teams are furiously chasing the four automatic Olympic qualification places with the other six teams in the series frantically seeking to avoid the four relegation spots.

“I have never known a World Series like this in the 20-odd years it has been operating. It is nothing short of cutthroat!”

Down in ninth place, Ireland still have top-four ambitions but the teams beneath them are some way adrift with avoiding relegation their main concern.

There is a settled look to the Ireland squad for the first of back-to-back tournaments in LA and Vancouver, with former Ireland U20 international Dylan O’Grady the only uncapped player in the 13-player travelling party.