In November 2006 the Vodacom Stormers scrum-half Paul Delport was diagnosed with a debilitating illness. It left him not only with concerns for his career, but left him fighting for his life. Three years on and the South African, 25, is captain of his country and preparing to lead them out this afternoon as they start their quest for a second successive title at the Dubai Sevens.
Delport, understandably, knows only too well how fortunate he is to be here at all as he prepares to lead his side out against the world champions Wales today. "Something like that makes you appreciate everything a lot more, it also makes you realise how short your career is and how quickly things can be taken away from you," he said. Aged 22 when the disease struck, Delport was returning to Cape Town having been travelling in southern Africa. After training again with Super 14s side the Stormers, however, he found himself increasingly lethargic and registering a worryingly high fever.
The former South Africa Under 19 and U21 captain's father is a doctor and advised his son to see a specialist. Within days he had been diagnosed with Epstein Barr Virus (EBV), a common illness that weakens the immune system. As widespread as EBV is - 95 per cent of Americans over the age of 35 have contracted it at some point in their lives - Delport's condition was exacerbated by his vigourous fitness regime, which led to his immune system virtually collapsing. He was quickly admitted to hospital, where he stayed for more than a month. Tests later found he had contracted meningitis, hepatitis, glandular fever and inflammation of the brain.
"When I do something, I do it properly," he joked of his plight. It was no laughing matter at the time: doctors initially warned he may never play rugby again. Yet within nine months he was back on the field playing for Western Province in the Currie Cup and, later, rejoined the Springbok sevens in the IRB World Series, where he helped them win their first title earlier this year. South Africa coach Paul Treu, despite watching Mzwandile Stick lead the side to victory last season, decided to name Delport as squad captain this year, and the new captain, who will play sweeper for the Boks, said he was as surprised as anyone.
"Coming off the series we had last season, I didn't really expect anything to change," he said. "But that's one of the fantastic things about Paul Treu, he doesn't just see you as the player. He sees you as the person, and one of the things this sevens side is big on is developing the person. "So, "Stickie" was captain last year, I'm captain this year and somebody else will be captain next year.
"But so far it's just been fantastic. It's such an honour. I've got a team of 12 guys who are all captains in their own right and that makes it pretty easy for me - and the guys make it very easy for each other. The great thing is that we are all on the same wavelength; we are all very passionate and all very keen to win." His determination to succeed will need to be at its strongest this weekend, but Delport insisted, while his side may be the tournament favourites, he is refusing to look past the Boks' first opponents, Wales, the shock winners of the Sevens World Cup here in Dubai in March.
"We were the champions last season, but this year we have zero points," he added. "We have to prove ourselves all over again and are just focusing on the next game; that is our priority just now and that is what we are gearing up for. That is our final." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org