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Springbok Women: South Africa's 'deeply patriarchal' society and why it won't hold them back

By Daniel Gallan
Jacomina Cilliers, Libbie Janse van Rensburg and Catha Jacobs pose for a portrait during the South Africa 2021 Rugby World Cup headshots session at the Pullman Hotel on October 02, 2022 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Greg Bowker - World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

In August this year, the Springboks rugby teams gathered for a photo. Notice the plural in the previous sentence. It wasn’t just Siya Kolisi’s world champion side that stood shoulder to shoulder on the eve of their clash with the New Zealand All Blacks in Johannesburg. Included in the frame were Nolusindiso Booi’s women who proudly sported the same leaping antelope on their chests. The next day, in the curtain raiser for the men’s headline clash at Ellis Park, they beat Spain 44-5.

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Back in March, Rassie Erasmus, SA Rugby’s director of rugby, revealed that part of the reason why he left his post as the men’s team coach was to commit more energy to growing the women’s game. “If I have to carry water for the women’s XV in New Zealand [at the upcoming World Cup], then I will do that,” Erasmus said.

He might not be reprising the pitch-side duties that caused so much controversy during the most recent British and Irish Lions series, but this image of unity provided tangible evidence supporting his words.

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But a photo is little more than window dressing. Major redevelopment is needed if the women’s Springboks are to match their male counterparts. With the exception of Argentina, which unforgivably does not have a women’s union programme, South Africa has the greatest disparity between the sexes of all the major rugby playing nations.

The men’s side, winners of the World Cup on three occasions and currently the third best team on the planet according to World Rugby’s metrics, are a global force. Hollywood movies and sweeping documentaries have been devoted to their story. Their players are household names and are among the highest earners in the game. They are well stocked by a robust club system and benefit from a seemingly endless supply of talent rolling out of high schools and universities.

The women’s side, ranked in their best-ever position at 11th, has never qualified for the knockout round in a World Cup. SA Rugby did not enter a team at the last showpiece tournament in 2017 with the Springboks not playing a competitive game between August 2014 and November 2018. At one point during this barren spell it looked as if the entire ecosystem of women’s rugby in the country would collapse.

“It was clearly a very challenging time for the organisation,” says Lynne Cantwell, a veteran of two World Cups with Ireland who joined SA Rugby as the women’s high performance manager in January 2021. “There’s no question that things were difficult before. And there are obstacles we still need to overcome. But I’m confident we’re moving in the right direction.

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Rassie is fully committed to growing the game. [Head coach] Stanley [Raubenheimer] has a fantastic team and every coach is developing skills that will resonate even after they leave. We’re on the up. We just have to maintain that momentum.”

Recent wins over Spain and Japan, two teams previously ranked above them, as well as century scores over Namibia and Zimbabwe are signs of a team on the rise. But a chasmic gulf still separates them from those at the top of the pyramid. That gap is bigger still when comparing them to the South African men’s team.

“You can’t compare us,” Raubenheimer says. “That unrealistic. We’re in the infant stage of our development. Doing well [at the World Cup] will raise eyebrows but the goal is to make people aware that women can play the game, they want to play the game and that they shouldn’t be restricted. Realistically we’re very far away. But we’re improving.”

To better understand where the team is going, it helps to understand where they have come from and why they came so perilously close to extinction. After all, rugby is a quasi-religion in South Africa. Isn’t every rugby fan, man or woman, an equal member of this broad church?

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“What people need to understand is that South Africa is a deeply misogynistic and patriarchal society,” explains Elma Smit, a radio and TV presenter who hosts The Good, The Scaz and The Rugby podcast alongside England’s record points scorer, Emily Scarratt. “We can funnel endless funds into the women’s game in South Africa but if a father won’t let his daughter play the sport because he thinks it’s not for girls, then we won’t get anywhere.

“Sometimes perception is more important than reality. And it’s not just one culture or one race. Every culture in the country has problems with gender. I was 25 when I first saw women play competitive rugby and that was when I went to New Zealand. Even though I inherited my love of the game from my mother and played lots of sports as a girl and was enamoured with the 1995 World Cup, I had to leave the country to see women play.

“It was illuminating. It felt like being on a different planet. It was like lifting the veil. I returned to South Africa committed to making a difference in some way, at least through my broadcasting and knowledge on the game. But I still encounter misogyny. I’ve had fans kiss me and grope me while live on air. I constantly have my credentials questioned. It has made me work even harder.”

Smit’s experience will be familiar to most South African women. According to government records, around 114 rape cases are reported every day. Countless more no doubt occur. Kolisi and his teammate on the wing, Makazole Mapimpi, were both witnesses to gender based violence in their homes and have used their platform to call for collective action, especially from men. This violence, though, is merely a byproduct of unchecked toxic masculinity.

A cognitive malaise has deep roots in the country and impacts all facets of society. The struggle for recognition faced by female rugby players should be viewed within this context.

“Proving people wrong is a constant state of what it means to be a woman in South Africa,” says Sesethu Mtshazi, a Springbok centre with three caps for her country. “People have told me my whole life that rugby is not for girls. I’ve stopped paying attention to them. You can’t live your life worrying about what people think.”

Mtshazi, who believes she would have been in contention for World Cup selection were it not for a debilitating injury this year, was in her penultimate year of high school when she first picked up a rugby ball. She had played sports throughout her life but rugby was a foreign concept in her home. Friends convinced her to attend a touch rugby training session nearby. When she hoofed a ball a considerable distance, a coach convinced her to stick with it.

“My father was supportive but I was the first girl or woman he’d ever seen hold a rugby ball,” Mtshazi says. “When you turn on the TV in South Africa, guaranteed there is a man or boy playing somewhere in the world. Boys’ school matches in South Africa are televised, with commentators and sponsors and they’re a big deal and yet women’s senior provincial matches are nowhere to be seen. It’s about exposure. How can you develop the game if no one can see it or even knows about it?”

According to research conducted by SuperSport, one of the world’s largest sports broadcasting corporations based in South Africa, 42% of rugby fans interviewed said that they are interested in both women’s and men’s rugby. A staggering 82% indicated they would be interested in watching the Women’s Rugby World Cup if the national team was participating. Mtshazi isn’t convinced.

“I’m not sure where they got those numbers from,” she says, pointing out that there is no unique link on SuperSport’s rugby page dedicated to the women’s game, even though there are pages covering under-20 competitions and the NPC league in New Zealand. “I’ll believe it when I see it,” Mtshazi says of SuperSport’s claims.

On field performances would help in this regard. “South Africans love a winning team,” Cantwell adds. “It’s easy to market a team when they’re challenging for World Cups. But we require patience, and a little kindness as well.”

Cantwell and Smit point to the success of the national women’s cricket team, the Proteas, as well as the national football team, Banyana Banyana, who lifted the Women’s African Cup of Nations title in July. These two squads have not only inspired young girls to pick up a cricket bat or join a local football club, but have attracted the interest and support of fans from both sexes.

“We’re conscious that in order to bring people on board we have to improve the product,” says Labeeb Levy, a skills coach and performance analyst with the Stormers who serves as a consultant to the women’s team in Cape Town. He was surprised by the tone of my voice during our interview, assuming I was called ‘Danielle’ and was a woman given my interest in this subject.

“We have to be honest and admit that the skills aren’t the same [in the men’s and women’s game] and that the game is of a lower standard, in South African at least. Kidding ourselves won’t help. We’ve seen England and New Zealand lead the way and they’ve done it the right way.

“Fans don’t have infinite time or money. They have to choose what they watch and we can’t just expect them to tune in and support. We have to give them something to be proud of.

“Most women start on the XVs programme late here. Our touch rugby programme starts at 12-years-old and you can play at a provincial level there, and that is how we get a lot of our players. So we do have players who can catch and pass, and sometimes kick, but we’re having to teach them set-pieces and how to join a ruck and how to tackle properly. Rugby IQ is something that comes over time and that’s often the difference between winning and losing. From a skills and tactics point of view we are playing catch up, but we are catching up.”

This World Cup arrives at a nascent stage in the development of the women’s game in South Africa. When asked what his team’s realistic goals were, Raubenheimer only mentioned on field performances after various off-field responsibilities like “growing the game” and “showing young girls that they can make a career and a life in the sport.”

When pressed for an answer concerning results, Raubenheimer spoke plainly. “We just want to give a good account of ourselves against England and France, but we don’t expect to challenge them or qualify from the group. We’re aiming to beat Fiji, though. That would be massive for us. We believe we can do it.”

In turn that would embolden sponsors to invest more money in the grassroots, cultivating a new generation of players who might bolster clubs, inculcate their communities with a rugby culture and shift perceptions on the limitations of women in a patriarchal society. New heroes might emerge as young girls look at a rugby ball and envisage themselves wearing that famous Springbok emblem, representing an organisation that has attracted the attention of Hollywood executives and award-winning filmmakers.

Rugby has long been a conduit for lofty dreams but in South Africa half of the population has been excluded. Not any more.

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