A lot still needs to happen before that day will come, but the 30-year-old former Springbok, South Africa ‘A’ and Junior Springbok wing said he is simply taking it one training session at a time.
“This will indeed be a comeback of sorts,” smiled the former Vodacom Bulls regular at the Stellenbosch Academy of Sport, where he now trains with the Springbok Sevens, “as I have not played for almost two years. It is a long time out of the game.”
Ismaiel retired from rugby at the beginning of 2021 due to a chronic shoulder injury that was operated on numerous times, following a very rewarding career that made him a recognisable face in Tests, Vodacom Super Rugby, the Carling Currie Cup and even a season with Harlequins in the English Premiership.
“The medical advice I was given made it clear that I was not going to be fit enough again to continue with my career,” he said.
“I accepted that and decided to give it all up. I had a good run in the game and was happy to leave the Bulls and relocate back to Cape Town.”
Ismaiel, who attended Tygerberg High School with the likes of Eben Etzebeth, Marvin Orie and Justin Geduld, returned home and it again was his alma mater that gave him another foothold in rugby.
“I was resigned to the fact that I will not play rugby again, but I wanted to stay fit and keep busy, so I continued to train, doing athletics and later cross-fit, in order to build up strength in my shoulder again,” he said.
“The crossfit training was done at Tygerfit, a gym that was based at Tygerberg High school at the time and is run by Santa and Ruan Mostert, a former teammate at school. My coach at school, Gavin Beresford, then asked me to become involved in coaching and soon I was back there where it all started, either coaching an age group team or training, doing cross-fit.
“Coaching got me thinking about the game and soon I was watching rugby on TV again, having not done so in the first months after I was forced into retirement.
“I still loved the game. The cross-fit and running, meanwhile, were also going great and I then realised that I was pain free, my shoulder did not bother me at all.
“I could lift proper weights again without any discomfort. Coach Gavin then suggested that I give it another go, as did my daughter, who reminded me of something I told her, that it is only over when you stop trying. I also had a chat with my wife, Zaylin, about it and she confirmed her support once again, as she has done so many times during my career.
Ismaiel contacted his agent, Dane Galley, and asked him to have a look around: “I just wanted to train in that environment again, to see if I still could do it. I had no issues with my shoulder anymore and I kept fit. I had a week with Western Province and then I got a call from Marius Schoeman, to come and train with the Blitzboks.”
That call from Schoeman, SA Rugby's High-Performance Manager for Sevens, also re-connected him with Geduld: “He knows the game inside out, has scored more than 1000 points on the World Series and won how many titles with the team. We last played sevens together at school, but the understanding was still there.”
The fact that they share a ride to training in Stellenbosch and back to the northern suburbs, also allowed more discussions about the ins and outs of the shortened code.
The training sessions were hard, but Ismaiel was not bothered; in fact, when the shoulder stood up to the daily and punishing regimes of the Blitzbok training sessions, and the excitement grew, not only with Ismaiel, but also with Schoeman.
“He came with a clear understanding that there will be no guarantees and he accepted,” said Schoeman.
“Travis is a class player, a Springbok, and brought with him a lot of experience and professionalism, which was good for the squad, especially amongst the younger group.
“He is now in line to play in the Dubai Invitational with our SA Sevens ‘A’ squad and he could be a contender to the remainder of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series.”
Ismaiel said the Blitzbok experience has been a good one so far.
“I am playing as a forward, at loosehead, so there were small things in the game that I needed to learn, but I am enjoying every minute of it,” he said.
“The fact that the Blitzboks were prepared to let me train with them and give me an opportunity to play at that level again, is something I am really grateful of. I hope to pay them back with on-field performances.
"You know, when I told the guys at the Vodacom Bulls I am packing it in, Cornal Hendricks told me to keep the faith, that I will be back playing soon. At the time, I did not think much of it, but now, seeing him playing for the SA ‘A’ side and me training here with these guys, those words came back to me.”
Ismaiel will know soon enough what the future holds, but he is at ease with whatever happens: “For now, I am just grateful to be back playing rugby and knowing how quickly it can end, I am not holding my breath. I would love to start pushing for a place in the Blitzboks squad, but it is one step at a time.”
And that first step could be in Dubai, next weekend…