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'She took me in without blinking': How Nadine Roos beat the odds

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Hannah Peters/World Rugby via Getty Images)

Nadine Roos has let it be known that she doesn’t like the attention that rugby brings because she is shy and introverted. Truth be told, though, the soon-to-be 27-year-old could talk for South Africa, even though English is only her second language.


Thirty midweek minutes in her company in downtown Cape Town eloquently breezed by, perfectly setting the scene for the second leg of the Challenge Sevens Series tournament taking place 50kms out the road in Stellenbosch from Friday through to Sunday.

It’s serious business for these Springboks women. They clinched the first-leg trophy with a comeback final win versus Belgium last Saturday and a repeat showing this weekend will secure promotion to the elite HSBC circuit which is set to undergo a World Rugby transformation for 2023/24.

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Black Fern Stacey Fluhler on winning gold at the World Sevens Series in Hong Kong

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Black Fern Stacey Fluhler on winning gold at the World Sevens Series in Hong Kong

Currently plying her club trade in Japan, elevation to the big show would be an international game-changer for Roos. Not only would it give her every reason to base herself full-time at home again, but success would also be the perfect birthday present for her grandmother who turns 78 on Friday.

Gran, without fail, is her biggest fan and while she struggles with technology such as live streaming, if a game is on regular TV, she is glued to it and armed with feedback. She also loves all the pictures Roos regularly sends from her travels around the world. Last year, for instance, there were World Cups selections at XVs and Sevens.

Without the matriarch, who knows how life might have turned out for the South African rugby star? She was still a toddler when ‘Ouma’ Sarie rescued her from an orphanage in Pretoria. Now, all these years later, her life-affirming story is something she doesn’t hide from. Instead, if publicising her upbringing helps any despairing child in strife to find hope, Roos is all for it.

The trigger was a random call from Fight for the Fatherless, the Christian-based movement involving international athletes. “I’m a believer that if you want to make a difference in the world, you need to do something about it – you can’t just sit back and expect things to happen,” she explained to RugbyPass in a room adjacent to a hotel lobby bustling with representatives from the 24 women’s and men’s teams going about their daily routine ahead of Friday’s second-leg kick-off.


“I felt if I speak up about my story, people will know that through hard work you can achieve success in your life. I grew up with my gran, my parents weren’t part of my life so (lack of) money was a factor in my upbringing, but it didn’t stop me from doing the things I love and the passion I had for sport.

“Academic-wise, I knew I had to do things and work hard to be able to go to varsity with high marks because there wasn’t money. Marks needed to be good for me to be able to get a scholarship to create a better future for myself. Because I didn’t have a father or a full mother figure in my life it wasn’t, ‘Oh no, I need to go and sit in a little corner and feel sorry for myself’.

“Life throws things at you and I’m a firm believer with my religion that God puts things on your plate, created your pathway before you even knew what he planned for you. It’s just for you to follow his plan and for me, how things happened in my life everything fell perfectly in place even in an unperfect situation.

“I was very young, three or four years old (when abandoned). There was a stage after where I lived with my mother and my stepfather in Cape Town. That was around grade four, grade five (age 10 or 11), but because of circumstances I wasn’t really happy and moved back to my grandmother almost grade six in Pietersburg.


“Sharing my story might now spark something in a little girl or a little boy’s life as to, Yes, I might not have a father or a mother that cares about me, but I do have some family member or I do have someone who cares about me, and they want to see me succeed in life.

“My grandmother had an impact on my life, changed my life because she took me in, raised me as one of her own. She sacrificed things in her life. She didn’t have to take me in but because I’m her own blood, she took me in without blinking her eye and wasn’t like, I don’t have enough money, don’t have the time, or I want to save because I’m getting old.

“The more I share my story the more people realise it wasn’t easy for me to be where I am today, but the reason why I share isn’t to get the attention for me. That isn’t my intention. It’s literally to help younger people or whoever finds themselves in the same situation as I was to say, ‘Okay, I must work hard to become successful in life’. Do not expect things in life because with expectation comes disappointment as well.”

Roos was already a Springbok when she first went public – and promoting rugby in her story is also very important to her. She is fully aware the game requires growth to prosper in South Africa. “When I started, I was the shy one and I’m still an introverted person. I’m still that person where I do the hard work in silence and let success make the noise. That is where my achievements came from, but I’m also a person that wants to see the system grow and will do anything to help.

“I believe if I can do the one percenters right people will follow me. That is basically how I am as a person. If I get asked by JJ (Harmse, the team’s media person) to do an interview, I will do it because I know I’m doing it for the team, not only for myself.

“The hard work behind the scenes, the sweat, the tears and the blood, isn’t for people to see but it makes me happy because I know when I get onto the field I’m as prepared and as ready as I can be to represent my country, the badge, my teammates and the people who love and support me – and also people who helped me to be where I am today because without them I’m basically nothing.”

Athletics was Roos’ initial varsity ticket, with reaching the Olympics as a 400-metre sprinter or hurdler the ambition, but rugby captured her imagination in 2015. She doesn’t know if that athletic promise would have been fulfilled. What she is certain of, though, is that women’s rugby is headed in the right direction for everyone’s benefit.

“I’m a firm believer that if I set my mind to something I will do anything to reach it but that [making the Olympics] is a result that I don’t know. Was it reachable; was it not? It was in my first-year varsity that things changed quickly for me,” she explained, now calling on young girls to eagerly take every opportunity possible to succeed at a much earlier stage in their development.

“The women’s game is fast-growing. World Rugby is improving it and the growth is very fast-paced. For the girls out there, if you get the opportunity to play, take it. A lot of things can change. More sponsorships, more people identifying you as a player – and it is going to become a career for women. That’s positive and if you start at a younger age, it is going to contribute more to your career.

“We want to grow women’s rugby in South Africa and the only way to grow it is to play on the world stages so we can build depth in our programme because funding is going to change and players are going to get more international exposure. We might get clubs wanting our players so that is going to be important for us to build our depth and if we qualify, we can go back and say, ‘Listen, this is where we are now, but we need schools to start women’s rugby’.

“That’s the big thing. Young boys start playing rugby at school barefoot and the grass is wet and that is where they get to play with a wet ball. But when you get to the age of 19 as a girl, you only get to varsity and play rugby then. That skill development is quite late, and it needs to start earlier. We still struggle with the fundamental things of rugby, catching and passing, identifying space.

“If those things can get in place at the younger age, that is going to create women’s rugby, that is inspiring the younger generation – and that is the ultimate goal for us as a team, inspiring the younger ladies and getting our rugby in a place where we are strong.

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A post shared by Nadine Roos (@nadine_roos89)

“If we can get girls in primary school to do sport, having that eye-hand coordination is really important to be able to catch and pass a ball at speed. If you develop that at a young age it becomes more natural as you grow older.

“It doesn’t have to be contact because contact you can learn really easily when you are older, but the skill part of it is quite a difficult thing that you notice with some players who are starting later in your career. You also don’t have to change your body shape to play rugby. It comes down to being smart. I was also fortunate to have good coaches who coached the contact skill part.”

Roos struck lucky growing up on her gran’s farm. Neighbourly boys had her playing all types of knockabout games with them. CrossFit then accelerated her athleticism, leaving her ready to thrive in varsity sports. Her latest Springboks call-up saw her fly home from Japan where she has a six-month deal with Nagato Blue Angels.

“It’s a nine-hour drive from Tokyo. I do a Japanese class with the director of the club, me, another player and her husband. It’s just learning the basics. It’s such a small town, not a lot of people can speak English so it’s making the effort to learn. What is really interesting about Japanese people is they can’t say no. It’s a weird thing. Here (in South Africa), if you don’t want to do something you just say no to someone and there is nothing wrong with it but for them it’s almost like they can’t say no, like it isn’t a word that exists in their vocabulary.

“It’s a good experience. I work around people who are really positive, really enthusiastic about rugby. We have seven foreigners there so also getting to know people in other national systems, getting to know how they do things and learning that way. Japan is a very good country in terms of how respectful people are, so overall the experience is humbling.”

It’s ironic Roos is loving life in Japan. It was 2017 when their national team broke her heart, the Japanese defeating South Africa in a Hong Kong final that had HSBC elite series qualification for the winners. The Japanese continue to operate on a different level, winning last year’s Challenger Series in Chile to get back into the top flight, with South Africa languishing in ninth.

These repeated setbacks ghosted through Roos’ mind when trailing in last weekend’s Stellenbosch decider to Belgium. “You could see moments in that Japan game that if we just held onto our ball, the result would have been different. It is just pressurised positions, pressure we just couldn’t handle. Last weekend we started really slowly and it was almost like a repeat of the previous qualifiers, but then luckily we found our rhythm.

“I don’t know if it is the pressure of this type of tournament it is, that you know you have to qualify. The coaches have prepared really well. There is a plan, and the players are following through. Winning the first Challenger Series tournament puts us in a much more confident space but it’s also very much pressurised because now we have a target on our backs.

“Everyone is going to come for us because we know we need to get into a final, but we just need to stick to our processes and not focus on the result. When we focus on the result we forget about the processes and don’t stick to the basics of the game. If we as a team can do that this weekend, I’m sure we will make it.”


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