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Why Springbok Women's reaction to biggest ever World Cup defeat rankled

By Daniel Gallan
South Africa's Zenay Jordaan (top) sits up high as teammates dance from the field after their loss during the New Zealand 2021 Womens Rugby World Cup Pool C match between England and South Africa at the Waitakere Stadium in Auckland on October 23, 2022.

Something didn’t sit right after England’s 75-0 rout over South Africa. No, it wasn’t the one-sided scoreline. That much was expected. England’s Red Roses are perhaps the most dominant sports team on the planet. They’re on a 28 game winning streak. Their fully professional squad is bolstered by the best league in the game and they have the firepower to sleepwalk their way to World Cup glory.


South Africa are decades behind in their development. They did not enter the previous global showpiece as the entire ecosystem of women’s rugby in the country came perilously close to collapse. They’ve found their feet on the world stage again, but this is merely a toehold as they still rely on a cluster of amateurs who have collectively played fewer Tests than Sarah Hunter and Emily Scarratt combined.

What rankled, what really stuck in the craw, was the sight of the South Africans celebrating after the final whistle that brought a close to their biggest ever World Cup defeat. They were singing and dancing. Every one of them wore a wide smile. If you tuned in late you might have assumed you’d just missed the greatest upset in rugby’s history.

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There are some caveats that need to be acknowledged. This was the final match for South Africa’s flyhalf Zenay Jordaan who retired as the most-capped Springbok women’s player with 36 games. More than anyone else, she has sacrificed so much to keep the game alive in a country that for too long has neglected half its population. She was rightly carried off the field on her teammates shoulders, receiving the adulation her career warrants.

And yet, despite Jordaan’s send off, the exuberance felt out of place. This next point might come across as a classic case of whataboutery, but it will help underline the great cognitive disparity that exists in our game.

Imagine the Springboks men’s team get knocked out of next year’s World Cup in the group stage, or they get soundly beaten in the quarterfinals by a gargantuan margin. That would likely be the last we see of Francois Steyn, Willie le Roux or Duane Vermeulen. How would the rugby loving public in South Africa interpret the sight of one of these legends being carried off to the park to the sound of jubilant cheers?



Would they acknowledge that an individual’s career trumps the context of the collective? Or would they be hurling their remotes at their TV screens as they grab their phones to spew outrage on social media threads?

There is no doubting the gulf that exists between the men’s and women’s game. In 2019 Siya Kolisi became the third South African captain to lift the Webb Ellis Cup. That Nolusindiso Booi and her team was participating in New Zealand should be regarded as a victory within the broader context of this inequality, but wouldn’t it have been a welcome sight if at least one of the Springboks women looked crestfallen?

Wouldn’t a few choice words, a few slumped shoulders, a few furrowed brows have been a sign that this team, despite its many disadvantages, was not content with merely participating as cannon fodder, but actually had grander aspirations? No one paying attention would have anticipated anything other than a comfortable English triumph. But surely we can at least hold the players who wear our country’s flag on their chest to a higher moral code?

Am I guilty of sexism in my critique? Would I be sexist if I didn’t hold the men and women who represent South Africa to the same standard? I’m genuinely asking. This is a quandary that I imagine many fans are wrestling with as they engage with the most high profile and exciting women’s World Cup to date.


The calibre of the play has been immense, at least from a handful of teams who have carried the tournament on their shoulders. But we’d be remiss not to at least recognise that far too many sides seem content with merely participating. On that front, the South Africans are not alone.

Following their 13-7 loss to Australia, the Welsh team appeared nonplussed that their tournament might have met a premature end. They weren’t to know, at least not categorically, that they’d still sneak through to the quarterfinals as one fo the best third placed teams from the group stage, which only renders the post-whistle reaction even more baffling.

Head coach Ioan Cunningham later said that he was frustrated with his team’s performance and their inability to step up when it mattered, but that was not the message conveyed on the screen as they seemed more interested in swapping shirts with the Wallaroos.

Now, of course, rugby is a game, and I’d hate to come across as a curmudgeon who’d prefer to see the spectacle turn into George Orwell’s vision of war minus the shooting. There is enough ugliness in the world without athletes tearing lumps out of each other once the contest has reached its conclusion.

But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t some room for a bit of animosity, a bit of lingering resentment, a bit of venom spewing from the mouths of players who want more, who need more, who won’t accept anything other than the absolute pinnacle of what’s attainable.

We’ve heard it said, often and loudly, that we are in the midst of the most competitive era in men’s rugby since the dawn of professionalism. Five teams have a serious chance of winning the World Cup next year and three more have a puncher’s chance of flipping the script.

That is a consequence of the elevated standards across the ecosystem from grassroots rugby to the top echelon of the pyramid. But it is also a consequence of the higher standards that we as consumers set. We expect more and so more is delivered.

Anyone invested in women’s rugby would surely wish for a future where five teams have an equal chance of winning the World Cup. In order to realise this ambition, we must remove the kid gloves and express the same passions that fuel our love of the men’s game. Maybe then we’d get a little close to parity.


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