After overcoming cancer, playing Rugby World Cup Sevens is no real pressure for Ronald Brown

After overcoming cancer, playing Rugby World Cup Sevens is no real pressure for Ronald Brown
Ronald Brown of South Africa is tackled by Josh Turner of Australia during the match between South Africa and Australia on day 2 of the HSBC London Sevens at Twickenham Stadium on 29 May 2022 in London, England. (Photo by Juan Jose Gasparini/Gallo Images)

Brown’s excellent form for the Blitzboks helped them to secure the Covid-19-shortened Sevens World Series in 2021

When sevens star Ronald Brown ran on to the Cape Town Stadium turf on Friday 9 September in the Rugby World Cup (RWC) Sevens, it was another box ticked for the Blitzboks playmaker.

“As a sevens player, it’s the World Cup, the Olympics and the World Series medal you want to win one day. I went to the Olympics [last year], I played in the World Series and got the gold medal. To play at the World Cup is awesome and it’s another goal ticked,” Brown told Daily Maverick.

But the journey to every pinnacle of the fast-paced game has been far from straightforward for the 27-year-old.

Born in Montagu, about 180km from Cape Town, Brown represented the Boland academy before moving to the University of Johannesburg to study education. When he was playing in the Varsity Sevens, he was scouted by the Springbok Sevens academy.

A year after moving to Stellenbosch and being placed in the Stellenbosch Academy of Sport in 2018, Brown was on the verge of making his Blitzboks debut in April 2019 in Los Angeles. But the fleet-footed player’s career was brought to a halt as it was about to take off.

He had been training with chest pain, thinking it was a minor cartilage injury. The discomfort refused to subside and further scans revealed that he had stage-two Hodgkin’s lymphoma – a cancer that attacks the immune system and limits the body’s ability to fight infection.

With his sevens dream, which had been moments away, seemingly out of reach, he began chemotherapy.

Months of gruelling rehabilitation, training and a pandemic later, Brown was finally able to tick his first sevens box when he represented South Africa at the 2020 Olympics (held in 2021) in Tokyo.

Brown’s excellent form for the Blitzboks helped them to secure the Covid-19-shortened Sevens World Series in 2021 and Brown could reach for his pen and tick another box on his list of goals.

 Close call

Brown has in recent months established himself as a Blitzboks regular.

He has played eight tournaments and scored 285 points for South Africa.

This year, the Springbok Sevens side clinched the gold medal at the Commonwealth Games after an incredible unbeaten run. Their journey included a thrilling 24-12 victory over World Series champions Australia in the semifinal.

In that match, Brown suffered a shoulder strain that prevented him participating in the gold-medal match against Fiji and in the final leg of the World Series in Los Angeles, two weeks out from the RWC Sevens.

Brown, however, was determined to complete his trio of goals.

“I have not played at a World Cup and was desperate to make this one. I did not mind losing out playing in Los Angeles, knowing that it will help to get to Cape Town,” Brown said.

“I have played in the World Series, so I did not mind missing a tournament, but this World Cup Sevens is going to be special.”

The Blitzboks – playing without Brown – finished 13th in Los Angeles, their lowest- ever tournament finish under coach Neil Powell’s tutelage.

Brown was the leading points scorer in the 2022 World Series for his team, with 194 points, which included 18 tries and 52 conversions, but it was his playmaking abilities that were missed most in Los Angeles.

With Brown back, the Blitzboks are sharper in attack.

 Learning from the best

Brown is not only playing in a dream tournament at home, he is also playing alongside one of his idols in Cecil Afrika, who was a last minute call-up to the RWC squad.

“Having him around is amazing. For myself, it’s a dream come true. I haven’t played with Cecil – I’ve trained with him – but to play with him will be a dream come true. In SA rugby he is one of the best sevens players ever, so it will be an honour to play with him,” said Brown.

“It’s awesome. Cecil is a great person on and off the field. The contribution he brings to the squad is amazing. The attributes he has help us a lot as playmakers. Having him around to guide us and show us things is incredible for the team.

“We were a bit thin when it came to the No 10 position and he probably knows the system better than anyone. With Cecil coming in, he’s a specialist of a No 10. It really makes things easier.”

 An emotional spectator

The last time the Blitzboks played at Cape Town Stadium was in 2019 during the World Series. Brown was an emotional spectator in the crowd on that occasion.

“The last time I was here, in 2019, I brought a friend who attended his first sevens tournament ever, and we started crying when the Blitzboks ran on to the field for that final. It was such a proud and awesome moment for us, even as spectators. This time I am playing, it is really amazing to realise that,” he said.

“I will definitely feel the emotion again, but I prefer it like that. I will be proud and pumped to play in front of my family and our supporters, which is one of my ‘whys’ in the game. I love playing for my country, and to do it in front of my family and supporters is so, so special.”

The RWC was head coach Powell’s last tournament as part of the Blitzboks set-up before he takes over as director of rugby at the Sharks in Durban. Powell has had the reins since 2013 and Brown is determined to give the coach who gave him his first Blitzboks cap the perfect send-off.DM


This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.


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