Why haven’t South Africa made as big an impact in women’s rugby as they have in the men’s game? Jacob Whitehead reports
The Springbok Women Story
The abiding image of last year’s World Cup is Siya Kolisi, the boy from the township, lifting the Webb Ellis trophy to the sky. A symbol of emergence for South African rugby, a modern-day Invictus story, a team led to the trophy by their first black captain.
But what about the women’s game in South Africa? The nation has one of the game’s largest player pools, a hugely successful men’s team and possibly the proudest rugby culture in the world. So why have the Springbok Women never been a global force?
South Africa are currently 13th in the Women’s World Rankings, having never finished higher than tenth in a Rugby World Cup. They chose not to even try to qualify for the tournament in 2017 and have won only 15 games of 45 in their history. It’s an inauspicious record, but there’s more to the story than those figures.
Coach Stanley Raubenheimer, appointed in 2018, begins to explain his side’s history to Rugby World. He says: “It would be unfair to expect the women to emulate the success of the men given the vastly different circumstances within the rugby systems in South Africa.
“Women’s rugby is still in its infancy over here, but there is a lot of effort going into the game, and we have a 12-year strategic women’s plan to ensure that we continue making progress.”
South Africa only played their first game in 2004, narrowly losing 8-5 to Wales in Port Elizabeth, while their non-participation in 2017 was a deliberate decision, taken with the long-term prosperity of the game in mind as they try to create some of the structure of their more storied rivals.
“The main objective of the decision was to rearrange the women’s system to strengthen the structures from the bottom up, and in my view it is paying off today,” explains captain and lock Nolusindiso Booi. “We have more young players coming through the ranks who took up the sport at a young age, which is brilliant from a skills and experience point of view.”
Their Rugby Africa Women’s Cup triumph in 2019 secured their place at RWC 2021 with a newer, younger squad, for what will be their first appearance in the tournament since 2014.
It will be Raubenheimer’s first experience of leading a side at a Rugby World Cup and his goal is for the side to improve on their performance in previous editions. It’s a sentiment echoed by his players.
Experienced scrum-half Tayla Kinsey has played the sport since the age of eight, turning out for College Rovers and KwaZulu-Natal, and is unequivocal about her hopes for South African rugby. “We don’t want to be a team just filling a spot at the tournament,” she says. “We want to go out there and represent South Africa in the best possible way that we can.”
Booi adds: “We want to leave the field after each match with our heads held high, knowing we gave everything.”
Their words go some way to demonstrating that, like the men’s team, there is no shortage of inspirational leaders within their set-up.
Booi is from a small village in the Eastern Cape and only began playing when she was 21. “The beauty of rugby is that anyone can play the sport, regardless of your background, and can go on to achieve national honours,” she says. “All it takes is hard work and discipline.”
Sadly for Booi, she was hampered by a foot injury last season, but the team have an able vice-captain in Babalwa Latsha, the Springbok Women’s first-ever professional player. The prop was born in the township of Khayelitsha, near Cape Town, but this year played for Eibar Rugby Taldea in Spain, starring with 13 tries in just seven games – from the front row!
Her work away from the pitch is equally impressive, as she forthrightly takes on some of the key issues of women’s sport in South Africa.
Alongside her 2018 law degree from the University of the Western Cape, Latsha hopes to set up a sporting agency for women, educating them about their rights within the sporting world, offering mentorship and training.
Raubenheimer is justifiably proud of the behaviour of his charges. “The way the women approach the game and their passion for the sport inspires me. Some players come from challenging backgrounds, which makes me appreciate the sacrifices they make for the sport”.
The Long-Term Plan
Raubenheimer’s squad is filled with impressive and formidable women – but what steps are SA Rugby taking to support them?
Well, the U20s team has been relaunched and they played their first games since 2013 last year. Their coach Laurian Johannes appeared as a prop for the Springbok Women in the 2010 World Cup and is the first woman to coach a South African national side. She’ll assist Raubenheimer with the senior squad next year as part of World Rugby’s Coaching Internship Programme.
Another development is the creation of eight new Youth Training Centres, as the women’s game looks to maximise its talent pool outside rugby’s traditional Afrikaner stronghold. Women’s rugby in South Africa is generally more diverse than men’s, with the national women’s 15-a-side team having 86% black representation, which exceeds the transformation target.
The hope is that the training centres will attract more players to the sport, with Booi saying: “Looking at the young talent coming through the ranks, I believe we’ve started to reap the rewards.”
Scrum-half Tinsey is equally animated about the talent emerging at grass-roots level, saying: “Each year it is getting better and better, with more girls being aware of the sport, especially with us now playing international matches in our own country. And I feel we can only build on this.”
The team are certainly happy to put pressure on themselves – seeing their performances at next year’s World Cup as the key to growing the women’s game. Their coach explains: “Representing the national team is the highest honour. We, as the flag-bearing team within the women’s structure, need to go out and show the youngsters the beauty of the game, and how special it is to play for the Springbok Women.”
The Labour Ahead
Stirring words indeed, but despite this optimism, challenges still face South Africa if they’re to compete at the highest level. Rhetoric alone does not win trophies.
Funding is the key to their improvement, with the national team’s budget a fraction of the powerhouses of England, New Zealand and France. But Booi recognises that the team may need to deliver on the pitch first, saying: “We would love to see more corporate investment in the women’s game, but that said, we are mindful of the fact that if we are more competitive, perhaps it would open the door for more corporate investment.”
The financial challenges are significant for South Africa’s amateur internationals and nationally contracting the players is not an imminent prospect given the impact of Covid-19 on the union’s coffers.
The final challenge the team faces is limited opportunities to play. There are six teams in the Women’s Interprovincial Competition, and they only play each other once before a grand final – meaning only five or six matches are contested by each team per year. A B League features eight more teams at a lower level.
“Perhaps one of the ways to step things up would be to expand the season to play more matches,” explains Kinsey. “Generally international tournaments require players to play back-to-back matches in a short space of time, and if our domestic competitions are similar, it could better prepare players for the demands of international rugby.
“Perhaps if the 15s sides play more regularly in the next few years, it could create a pathway for the 15s game to become professional.”
The Last Word
Kinsey’s words address an end-goal: professional status. In a country as rugby-mad as South Africa, shouldn’t a professional women’s set-up be possible?
“It would be nice to have a fully professional or even semi-professional women’s game,” considers Raubenheimer. “But we need to be mindful of the fact that it is a process. It’s important for the players to show they’re deserving of professional contracts by pulling people into stadiums and playing an attractive and skilful brand of rugby.”
It’s a cautious answer, but an opinion also expressed by his national captain Booi. “We have a long way to go (to achieve professional status) because the sport is still in the development stages in the country. We should take it step-by-step instead of rushing things just for the sake of it.”
Raubenheimer adds: “I feel that we have to let the women’s sides go out and stand on their own two feet and find their rightful place.”
This period of baby-steps, with the Springbok Women still just 16 years old, is coming to an end. Next year’s World Cup, and beyond that their domestic rugby and growing player pool, will dictate if they are left merely walking – or are able to run.
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