The top gun in the United Rugby Championship, DHL Stormers flyer Leolin Zas came dangerously close to turning in his wings.
Zas, 26, beat all comers with 11 tries in 11 matches this season to win the URC’s Top Try Scorer award. Five years ago he was carted off Newlands during a pre-season friendly with a shattered left leg and, on recovery, he was so frustrated by his performances in limited playing time that he planned on retiring.
‘Leolin had a horrific break in 2017,’ said DHL Stormers coach John Dobson. ‘He broke two bones in his leg. As a sprinter, there were questions about whether he would ever get to full speed again and for a long time it looked like that was going to be the case.’
Zas missed the remainder of the 2017 season and, after an unsuccessful attempt at relaunching his career with the Cell C Sharks in 2018, he traced his steps back to Cape Town.
‘He didn’t really land at the (Cell C) Sharks, we got him back here and there were glimpses, but I can’t say he came back to Western Province and it was an instant success story,’ said Dobson.
While Zas was back home and back on the field, it wasn’t coming easy for the Hermanus High speedster who had to deal with a combination of niggles, scarce playing time and the absence of form.
‘It was mentally a very traumatic time for him. Leolin was a Super Rugby star in 2016 at the age of 21,’ added Dobson.
‘You don’t get many wings of that size in South Africa, with a great kicking game, he’s good in the air and brings sheer physicality. But the issue with him was always his work rate and, I think that, as he began to not make it, he began to get anxious. Whether he lost interest or felt he wasn’t going to make it I don’t know, but he drifted out of games a little bit.
‘He was here for about 18 months – playing, not playing; having great moments, and then off moments – and we just needed to get more intensity out of him on the field.’
It was a dark time made even more grim for Zas by the death of his father. But this year, the sun started to rise on his career, and the temperature went up sharply in March.
‘He did well against Munster and Dragons on the tour in October and we thought we’d give him another go when we came home to face Zebre Parma in Stellenbosch.’
Having scored a try in a 34-18 loss at Thomond Park, Zas starred with a try double in the 55-7 demolition of the touring Italians.
In hindsight, Zas had taken the first steps in a run of consecutive starts in which he dotted down 10 times as the DHL Stormers streaked to eight straight victories.
‘Leolin took his chance with both hands,’ says Dobson. ‘As is very much the case with him, if Leolin feels backed, then he repays you dramatically. We’re thrilled with what he’s done and look forward to what is still to come.’