Select Edition

Northern Northern
Southern Southern
Global Global
NZ NZ

Will South Africa men's World Cup win launch a revolution for Springbok Women?

By Daniel Gallan
CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA - OCTOBER 27: The players of South Africa sing their national anthem prior to kick-off ahead of the WXV 2 2023 match between South Africa and Samoa at Athlone Sports Stadium on October 27, 2023 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo by Johan Rynners - World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

They say a rising tide lifts all boats. But that’s not always true. At least not in South African rugby where triumphs in the men’s game have failed to translate into anything close to success for the women’s programme.

ADVERTISEMENT

Even before Siya Kolisi’s team lifted their second consecutive World Cup in France last year, the Springbok Women were languishing as a second-tier nation. Now with four Webb Ellis trophies in the cabinet, the gap between the two organisations is stark.

But a new year has brought newfound optimism at SA Rugby headquarters. And for Lynne Cantwell, the former Irish international now working as South Africa’s high performance manager, that fourth title could have a positive impact on the oft-forgotten half of the population.

“The men’s victory can only be seen as a good thing for us,” Cantwell says. “The Springbok brand, which of course we’re a part of, has greatly improved and attracted loads of attention. That brings extra interest, more investment, a higher standard from within the group. We want that success as well and the senior management at SA Rugby wants it for us too.

“But we also have to be realistic. The international women’s game is 42 years old. The South African international game is 22 years old. The context of that age is important. Yes, we’re unhappy with where we’re ranked and are ambitious to move up the table. But we also know we’re competing against teams who have been at this longer than us.”

South Africa are currently ranked 13th and have reached a high of 10th on World Rugby’s metrics. The men’s side is first at present but that is less of a concern than the women’s side placed above the Boks. Spain, Japan, the United States of America and Canada are all ahead. And though the gap is closing – especially on Spain in 12th who were beaten by South Africa 35-20 in April last year – it remains a blight on a country that claims to have rugby coursing through the national bloodstream.

“I’d be pulling my hair out if I felt that no one cared,” Cantwell replies when asked if she ever gets frustrated in what must feel like an uphill battle. “But I honestly feel that everyone involved has the best interests of this team at heart.

ADVERTISEMENT

“What is a challenge though is not unique to us. It’s a challenge for all sports teams around the world and that is a combination of financial support and resources available to players. It’s not easy to finance all of our needs. So we’re pushing hard and we’re seeing growth year on year. The national teams are in a good place. It’s the pathway where there needs to be significant investment and that is taking time.”

The Bulls Daisies – the women’s branch of the Blue Bulls franchise in Pretoria – turning professional last year helped to a degree, but they remain the only domestic team with a fully professional women’s outfit. Which means that when many players are selected to represent their country, they’re stepping into an environment unlike anything they’ve experienced before. The men’s programme has no such problems.

“What you need to understand is that for some of the girls, they’ve never really been coached before,” Cantwell explains. “It’s not that they can’t grasp what we’re teaching them, it’s just that they don’t have that foundation in rugby IQ. There is a perception that the girls don’t know what they’re doing but we need to reframe that. The truth is that they haven’t necessarily been taught how.

“So it’s hard to load them with overly complicated defensive sets or attacking plans when they’re still developing the basics. They’re great athletes and very skilful, but they haven’t had the opportunities that the men have had who have come through schools and academies and age-group rugby. This is where the [men’s] Springboks have helped.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Almost all of Rassie Erasmus’ and Jacques Nienaber’s assistants have worked with the women’s team whenever the men have not been in camp. Felix Jones, the attack coach who will soon join England, has helped spark imagination in the back line.

Deon Edwards and Daan Human have fine-tuned the scrum and line-out. Even Andy Edwards, the team’s strength and conditioning coach, has provided advice on how to extend a player’s output across a season that now includes the WXV tournament.

The challenge is also in creating a more robust playing group. Cantwell points out that Zenay Jordaan, South Africa’s most capped woman, retired last year with 37  Test appearances over 14 years. The plan now is to have at least 40% of the squad reach 30 caps by the time the World Cup kicks off next year. That means that almost half of the group would have three quarters of Jordan’s caps by playing at least 12 Tests a year.

“It’s a big step up,” Cantwell concedes. “But it’s necessary. We need to get miles in the legs. We have noticed an increase in injuries. Some of the girls just aren’t used to playing so much rugby. But it’s the only way we’re going to compete. We can’t play a handful of games and expect to get better.”

Which means deeper wells are needed, both in terms of physical attributes as well as mental toughness. Here is where the men’s Boks come in again.

“They’re so good at storytelling,” Cantwell says of Kolisi’s team. “They have a narrative, a mythology. They represent something and everyone understands that. It’s why players who are benched don’t sulk and remain committed to the cause. It’s why when given the choice of two changing rooms at the World Cup in France they always chose the smaller one. They are a team that understands what it means to struggle and they use that to their advantage.

“We can do the same. Our girls also understand what it means to be South African, to represent South Africa. Some of them have come through hardship to get here and all of them have been chastised or criticised for being women rugby players at some stage on their journey. We need to leverage that. We need to get supporters buying into the story like they’ve done with the men’s team.

“All fans want to support a winning side but they’ll back you if they believe that you’re representing them. We need to tap into those personal stories. There is a common language here between the teams, not just on the pitch. If we can bridge that gap, we may start to bridge other gaps where they exist.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Join free

LIVE

{{item.title}}

Trending on RugbyPass

Comments

2 Comments
S
Sumkunn Tsadmiova 186 days ago

On the basis they don’t even let women anywhere near the barbecue I think the answer is fairly predictable….

J
John 186 days ago

Judging by the ladies 7s…no

Join free and tell us what you really think!

Sign up for free
ADVERTISEMENT

Latest Features

Comments on RugbyPass

FEATURE
FEATURE How can Rassie Erasmus evolve his deadly Bomb Squad? How can Rassie Erasmus evolve his deadly Bomb Squad?
Search