Not even the Saturday morning departure from Cape Town with stops in Johannesburg and Sydney and finally Auckland could wipe the smile of the face of the hard-running centre, as her road to make the squad was much more eventful than a couple or air pockets over the Indian Ocean.
A year ago, the 24-year-old Ngwevu – then the starting centre in her team – was told by Springbok Women Head Coach Stanley Raubenheimer that she had fallen out of favour as her conditioning was not up to standard. If she did not do something about it, she was not going to New Zealand.
To prove his intent, Raubenheimer omitted Ngwevu from the Springbok Women’s November tour to Europe.
And to further complicate matters, an unplanned pregnancy threatened to cost Ngwevu her dream of playing for her country, which would have been ironic, as her new-born son was named Luphiwe, which in the Xhosa language means ‘gift’ or ‘gifted by his birth’.
“When I came back to play last year, I was not quite where I needed to be due to giving birth and getting back onto the field a couple of months later,” she said.
“I was still carrying some weight, but I was included in the squad that played against Kenya. Coach Stanley was very straight with me afterwards. He told me that I need to drop at least 10kg before he would consider me again, and that I was not going to be picked for the November tour to Europe.”
Ngwevu was stung and stunned. It was the first time in her career that she had been dropped, the first time that she was not patted on the back.
“It did hurt, but coach was right. I decided, ‘let me show him.’ So I started training harder. I changed my diet, I started running twice a day. Luckily for me, the national players have a gym contract with Virgin Active and that proved vital for me, as I had that access and I could use that to get fit.”
Winter Rose, the men’s club in her hometown of Mdantsane, also proved vital.
“I was training with them, I was training with the boys and that made me stronger as well,” Ngwevu recalled.
“The fitness came back, the weight dropped and when I was called back into camp this year, I was ready to prove to the coach that I wanted to play for my country again. That I wanted to be the best player. I had to, I have a son to look after. If I play well, he eats well.”
The first camp, in January this year was a fitness camp. Ngwevu’s real test was about to arrive, with not a rugby ball or running line in sight.
“I was really scared, I am not going to lie. I was not sure how I would cope, but I passed everything. Coach Stan was very happy for me. And when we played against the boys (Cape Peninsula University of Technology U20’s), I was not scared, because of me playing with Winter Rose. That was great for my confidence.”
Ngwevu’s journey to the Bok hotel in Auckland was indeed a roller coaster ride, both mentally and physically.
“The World Cup was always in my mind. It was supposed to be last year remember, but my pregnancy was going to cost me a spot. I actually prayed that the tournament might be postponed and when it was, I believed that it was my destiny. Then I decided, this is going to be the tournament where I show the world what I am capable of,” a motivated Ngwevu said.
There would be other sacrifices though, ones that other players in the World Cup squad did not have to deal with. Regular camps, a trip to Japan and now a month or more in New Zealand sounds grand for a young sportsperson in a national team set-up; for a mother of a young boy, not so much.
“I think of him all the time, I miss him a lot. Luckily I can video call him and although he does not speak properly yet, I can communicate with him. That makes me feel a lot better. Ultimately, I am doing it for him. My future is his future, and his future is my future,” she said.
Ngwevu’s form this year was impressive to say the least and the world is taking notice. In her last three Test matches against Japan and Spain (who were ranked higher than the Springbok Women at the time), Ngwevu had 40 ball carries, three line breaks, two offloads, completed 17 of 20 tackles and beat 12 defenders.
The attention she is attracting from around the globe is another first for the young mother. In Japan, numerous questions were posed to Ngwevu about her career plans and potentially moving abroad.
“Even one of the Spain players came to me and said they watched the Japan tests and that she was a fan of my game. I am surprised about that, but I am also very proud of myself for getting to this point where I can be recognised for my rugby abilities.”
Those abilities will be on full display in October, when the Springbok Women take on France, Fiji and England in Pool C of the Rugby World Cup and if her form remains as it is, more international dialling codes will appear on her phone.
“I would not say ‘no’ for an overseas offer, it is something I want to experience in my career, to play abroad and experience the different cultures and outlooks to rugby. I am not sure about the timing of that or when it will happen, but whenever it is, I am taking my boy with me. That will be the first thing in the contract,” Ngwevu insisted.
Her focus for this Auckland trip is clear.
“For this World Cup, I just want to make my mark. After this tournament, I want people to talk about me. When I was playing U18, I started to dream of playing for the Springboks. Later, I heard about the World Cup and then I set my mind on that.”