And run is something this scrawny teenager could do. But as it turned out, she had some ball-sense too, and once her track speed and netball skills were matched in the form of playing rugby, Rights Mkhari's path took a turn for good.
She started playing rugby at Russel Bungeni High School (as a fullback), but it was an invite from neighbouring Hluvuka High School, who had a much stronger team, that set the wheels in motion in what would see her become a professional athlete in Stellenbosch in the Western Cape of South Africa, more than 2000 kilometres to the south of her rural home.
Selection to the senior Limpopo Blue Bulls team while still at school, the South African Under-20 Women’s team (15s) and in 2017, the SA Women’s Select Sevens team after being spotted at the Interprovincial Sevens, all paved the way to international rugby for Mkhari.
“My mother, Ruth, always supported me, from the start,” said Mkhari from the Springbok Women’s Sevens team base at the Stellenbosch Academy of Sport.
But it wasn’t the same for her late grandmother Risimati, who didn’t want Mkhari to play rugby, fearing for her safety. Once she realised what path this decision has taken for her granddaughter, she too became a proud supporter.
On Sunday, the Springbok Women’s Sevens team travel more than 12,000km north on Sunday, this time to France for tournaments in Paris and Nancy, which will be a first step back for Mkhari after a serious knee injury in 2018.
“I played for the squad in an invitational tournament in Brisbane last year February as we were preparing for the season and snapped my ACL,” she recalled.
“That was it for me for the season, a very disappointing end to it.”
Later in 2018, South Africa played in the HSBC World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series qualifiers in Hong Kong, the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast and the Rugby World Cup Sevens in San Francisco and the tall, rangy (1.75m and 71kg) forward missed all of that.
The next two weeks will be a good test to herself, to confirm that she is back at the level where she wants to be, Mkhari said. Those who attended the recent training matches between the SA side and Brazil, will have little doubt, as the prop tore into a hapless opponent, leaving the South American gasping for breath, following a ferocious tackle.
“I enjoy the contact element of the game as I feel that I can dominate,” a soft-spoken Mkhari admitted.
“I want to make a difference in every tournament I play. For now, I just want to work as hard as I can, to be the best player I can be. My short term goals are to contribute by scoring tries, making tackles and doing my bit.”
Having missed out on the big ticket items in 2018, Mkhari wants to compete at the Olympic Games for South Africa in the Women’s Rugby Sevens in Japan in 2020 and hopes the team can qualify to join the World Series again.
“All of us in the squad feel the same. We just want to be part of the winning team, being part of an elite group and a competitive team that plays on the world stage, playing finals and winning medals,” she said.
However, there is a deeper drive in her life too. Mkhari is a part-time student in her fourth year at the University of Venda in Thohoyandou, in Recreation and Leisure studies, something that lies very close to her heart.
Education is a key to the future, she says and playing rugby opened the doors for her to do just that. She would love nothing more to see more of her rural foes follow the same path.
“If I was not playing rugby, I would not have learned all these things and the doors of education would not have opened. Sport taught me to study hard, work hard, achieve things,” Mkhari insisted.
“Unfortunately sport is not that big in Limpopo, where young people encounter poverty. They don't have the opportunity to travel and see the world,” added Mkhari, who debuted for the team in Vancouver in 2017 and also toured with the Springbok Women’s 15s to the United Kingdom that same year.
“You don't have to stop trying, there should not be barriers. I trained on gravel, I imagined the rugby poles, as there were none. You can create your own way.”
Rugby also led her to Stellenbosch and the Springbok Women’s Sevens team, where she immediately felt at home.
“The environment is professional – we are a group of people with the same passion, who want to become the best. And this brings out the best in me. Every day I feel like I have achieved something.”
She also trains hard for those back in Bungeni and surrounds, where she visits schools and gives talks whenever she returns home: “I feel that I need to inspire people, even in training. The possibilities are endless, you can achieve so much. When I train and play, I am also doing it for the people back in Limpopo.”