South Africa's Bulls Daisies: 'It wasn’t until that first payslip came through that it sank in.'
The drive from Pretoria in the north of South Africa to Gqeberha at the southern edge of the country takes about 12 hours by car. It’s longer still if you’re getting there on a bus large enough to carry a rugby team. Factor in some necessary stops along the way and this morphs into an arduous and uncomfortable journey.
The Bulls Daisies, as the Blue Bulls women’s outfit is called in a nod to the Barberton daisy that first adorned the union’s crest in 1938, made this trek last year. They left early on Friday morning. They then played the EP Queens at noon on Saturday, beating them 17-15. The players rested their weary bodies that evening before heading back where they came from the next day. After all, most had to be ready to report at their day job on Monday.
Two weeks ago they covered the same distance but went by very different means. This time they flew down in less than two hours. They were well rested and ready by the time the opening whistle sounded. They cruised to a 34-10 victory but were in no rush to race home. There was no other job that needed doing on Monday.
At the start of May, the Bulls Daisies made history by becoming the first fully professional women’s rugby team in South Africa. In a stroke, a hodgepodge collection of firefighters, teachers, physiotherapists, lawyers and students had nothing else to worry about other than the fate of an egg shaped ball.
“We still can’t really believe it,” says the 26-year-old scrumhalf, Rumandi Potgieter, one of 35 players now on a full-time contract. “Even after we’d signed, until we came to training on that first day we were still wondering, ‘Is this real?’.
“It wasn’t until that first payslip came through that it sank in. It’s an incredible feeling. I wake up with a smile on my face and I can’t wait to get into training. I know everyone else feels the same. There is an energy at the club now that I can’t put into words.”
Women’s rugby in South Africa was on its knees only five years ago. The national side didn’t play a competitive match between August 2014 and November 2018 and it looked as if the entire ecosystem would collapse.
The appointment of Lynne Cantwell – a veteran of two World Cups with Ireland – as high performance manager of women’s rugby in South Africa in January 2021, was soon followed by a revamped domestic competition. The Women’s Premier Division would provide a platform for prospective Springboks and bolster a pipeline that had been leaking for some time.
But there was only so much these players could do. A handful were contracted by SA Rugby but the rest toiled away as amateurs.
“Training was a place where you let off steam,” adds Potgieter, who was completing a law degree at the time. “You weren’t as focussed on developing skills and working on moves. You just wanted to forget about what happened in the week. But sometimes it was hard to concentrate if you had a deadline at the back of your mind.”
It was during this period that England and its top clubs in the Premier 15s set a benchmark. Though the Red Roses were felled in the World Cup final, their performances under Simon Middleton was a testament to what was possible when a group of elite athletes is supported by a stable base. Their set piece in particular caught the eye.
“We saw how they were doing things and we recognised that this was what was needed,” says Thando Manana, a former Springbok who now serves as the Bulls Daisies’ manager. “We recognised that these were the cornerstones of what made the Bulls and South African rugby so successful. Scrum, maul, line-out, aggression. We could do that. But we needed to learn and up our game.”
Manana went on a fact finding mission at the start of this year. He visited Saracens, Harlequins and Ealing Trailfinders to better understand how they ran their women’s programmes. He spoke to coaches and administrators. He asked a torrent of questions and returned to South Africa equipped with a workable blueprint.
“What I learned was that you couldn’t be half in and half out,” Manana explains. “I promised the players that they would get everything the men get. We can’t yet pay them the same. The reasons for that are known. But they would travel to games like the men do. They will have access to the same facilities, the same equipment, the same medical care, the same expertise, the same training methods, the same insurance. We will treat them the same.
“We had a proper pre-season. We work with them individually on nutrition and recovery. They are looked after and they give back in ways you can’t imagine. They want to be here. They want to make this work. We all do. There is still a lot of work that lies ahead. But I am excited.”
The team is unbeaten after three games this season. Besides their victory in Gqeberha, they’ve also won on the road in East London and Durban, putting a combined 65 points on Border Ladies and Sharks Women without conceding a point.
As expected, their success has been built from the ground up. Like the all-conquering Bulls’ men’s team that claimed three Super Rugby titles between 2007 and 2010, the Daisies have created an indomitable pack that Potgieter says, “is the toughest in the country by a mile”.
“The secret is time,” explains the Daisies’ head coach, Hayden Groepes who had previously worked as an assistant with the men’s senior team, as well as with the Under-19 side. “Time equals synergy. There are specific skills that are needed to form a formidable pack and again that comes with time together. The tight five has always been a massive part of the [men’s] Bulls game complimented by a dynamic loose trio. It’s the same with this team.
“We push them to be better and they take that on. We know that we have the opportunity to work on minor details. Line-out jumpers are off the ground much faster than before. The maul and scrum is much more compact. Mentally they’re more switched on. It’s a privilege to be a part of it.”
Success, however, can have some unintended consequences and the targets on the backs of every Daisies player will only grow larger.
“We embrace the pressure,” says a defiant Lusanda Dumke, the open-side flanker and co-captain of the squad. “I’m not triggered by pressure. We have to show that investing in women’s rugby makes a difference. We’re ready to lead.”
Dumke is one of the few players who already had a central contract with the national team and is now driving a standard at the club for others to follow. “I’ve been doing it anyway,” she says. “We want to make a mark. We want people to fear us. We want to be the team that everyone looks up to. We want them to know that we’re the best team in the country.”
Winning, though, is not enough. Manana understands that rugby is a business and the quality of entertainment is what sells the product. Though he is adamant that lifting trophies is imperative, he also wants his team to play a brand of rugby that can help recalibrate some antiquated views around the women’s game in South Africa.
His goal is to fill at least 50% of Loftus Versfeld, the spiritual home of rugby in Pretoria. Given its capacity is around 51,700, that seems a long way off. In March, a world record 15,420 people watched Harlequins and Bristol play at Twickenham in a game that served as a curtain raiser for a men’s Premiership clash later that day.
Still, the omens are positive. And if the Bulls can sweep aside the competition, they’ll lay down a marker for other provinces to follow.
“We can see the impact we’ve had already,” Potgieter says. “We talk to our friends at other teams and they’re now putting pressure on their CEOs to become professional. They don’t want to be left behind. We see what we’re doing as bigger than us.”
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