Louis Koen on the tackle that shook the rugby world
It was a hit that shook the foundations of the game. Not just women’s rugby. Not just South African rugby. But the entire galaxy that revolves around the oval ball. Honestly, it’s worth searching out if you haven’t seen it already.
Scotland’s fullback Chloe Rollie runs a superb support line in her own half and collects an off-load from an inside channel on the gallop. She cuts off her right foot and steps a defender. She darts back infield and rounds another. She’s screaming up the field. No one can stop her.
She glances to her left looking for a teammate and as she does so South Africa’s fly-half and record points scorer, Libbie Janse van Rensberg, dips her shoulder. Rollie is oblivious to what awaits her. And for a brief moment, time seems to stop as Janse van Rensberg absolutely obliterates her.
“I was so happy for Libbie,” says South Africa’s interim coach, Louis Koen, who played 15 times for the men’s Springboks and has since worked as SA Rugby’s high performance manager. “She puts in so much work. So for her to get the attention she’s got, it’s been amazing.”
One video of the hit has been viewed over 270,000 times on one account on X. Another has around 30,000 impressions. In Paris last week, even as the men’s side were gearing up for a showdown against the hosts France in a World Cup quarterfinal, Janse van Rensburg’s expertly placed right shoulder got sufficient airtime in the bistros and fan parks where South Africans gathered.
“It’s funny what can bring attention,” Koen adds. “We’re under no illusion that women’s rugby is a fringe sport in the country. That’s a strange thing because the men’s game is obviously so big. So whenever there’s a moment that can bring eyeballs and attract interest, it’s so important that we jump on that.
“We’re aiming to get people to talk about women’s rugby and Libbie is so good on social media in promoting our team. I’m not on social media a lot so I’m not so aware, but the players were all sharing the replays and talking about it.
“She does giveaways on her Instagram for fans. She does so much to bring attention to our sport. So I was just so happy for her. She’s a brilliant player. She is so classy with ball in hand and as you can see she’s been working on her defence.
“Wins will help promote our mission, but we can’t ignore those moments. Hopefully we can produce more of them.”
Koen lingers a little on the word ‘wins’. When asked to expand on his views his tone shifts.
“Look, we’re realistic,” he continues. “We know that we’re not at a level where we can compete with the top teams in the world. But the only way we can get better is if we play against teams that are better than us on a regular basis.
“But that means that we’re going to lose more games than we win. South African rugby fans are like all rugby fans anywhere in the world. They want to see their team do well and if they don’t they might lose interest.
“This is a long term project so I’m asking South African fans to be patient. What Lynne Cantwell [the former Ireland international who was appointed as South Africa’s women’s high performance manager in 2021] has stressed that this will take time. It might get worse in terms of results before it gets better.”
South Africa lost the match to Scotland 31-17. Currently ranked 13th in the world according to World Rugby’s metrics, they’re in the second tier of the WXV tournament which they’re also hosting. Along with Scotland, they’ve been paired with Italy, the United States, Japan and Samoa. Apart from the Pacific Islanders, all the other teams are ranked higher than them.
But Koen is optimistic that his team can land a few blows of their own. The squad has been boosted by an influx of players from the Bulls Daisies, the only fully professional women’s team in South Africa and a side that swept to a flawless victory in the Women’s Premier Division, claiming 12 league victories from as many games before sweeping to a 69-8 victory in the final against Western Province.
“They showed what is possible when the players are given proper support,” Koen says of a side that has contributed 11 players to his squad of 30. “Talent is the raw ingredient and hard work helps it develop. But you need an infrastructure to support it. Hopefully other teams can follow.”
Koen cites the rigorous training, the rest and recovery, and the attention to finer skills that have been cultivated at the Daisie’s training base as a cause for optimism. He explains how this has had a positive impact on the broader group and how he’s been able to work on aspects of the game that will help bridge the gap between the Springboks and the teams above them.
“You can’t succeed at the elite level without a solid scrum, line-out and maul,” he says. “And you can’t develop those without proper training. Before the players would get in camp and they’d sort of have to start from zero. Now there are a good few of them who have this base to work from.
“Look at England. Their set piece is amazing and that’s why they’re the best team in the world. It’s the same in the men’s game. The [men’s] Boks have always had a brilliant set piece. That’s what we’re aiming to achieve. We’ve said we want to compete at the next World Cup [in England in 2025]. I’m not saying we’re going to win it. But we’re going to compete.”
Koen might not be around for that. His short term stint with the side ends this weekend after the match against Italy, though he hopes to remain with the group.
“It’s honestly been a dream come true coaching this side,” he gushes. “I’ve just loved it. I’m so passionate about this project. We’ve only just begun.”