We have followed the South African women’s rugby 15’s and 7’s teams and set-up for years now and it is so exciting to see how things have grown and how this year has seen an explosion in South African women’s rugby.
In January the South African Rugby Union (SARU) awarded national contracts to fifteen Springbok Women Sevens players for the first time in history, in a significant move towards the 2016 Rio Olympic Games and proving its commitment to growing Women’s rugby. The fifteen players are members of the elite Sevens squad that is based in Stellenbosch, a group that includes star players Zenay Jordaan, Mathrin Simmers, Lorinda Brown and Veroeshka Grain. They all live together within this residential programme and the view is that this provides an ideal environment for the players to train together and also bond off the field. As Rassie Erasmus, SARU’s General Manager of High Performance said, “In the past our women players had to train on their own and then assemble in short camps before matches, which was not conducive to consistent quality performances. These initiatives have definitely changed the face of women’s rugby.”
Rassie Erasmus was equally excited about the decision to contract an elite group of players and he believed it would inspire more women to follow their dream of becoming professional rugby players. “Women’s rugby worldwide has grown tremendously in the last few years and with the inclusion of Sevens rugby in the Olympic Games from 2016 we believe it will be even more popular in future,” said Erasmus. “In line with this growth it was essential to align our structures with international standards in order to compete successfully against the best teams in the world. This is certainly a massive milestone for women’s rugby in South Africa.”
SARU CEO Jurie Roux agrees with this sentiment. “This is a watershed moment for women’s rugby in South Africa. It shows that we have faith in our players and that SARU is serious about women’s rugby. We are determined to see the ladies excel on the international stage, and by raising the level of professionalism in the women’s set-up, we believe results will follow.”
Speaking to the players they agree that this has been of huge benefit to them both individually and as a team. As Shona-Leah Weston commented, “...for a diverse nation we all get on really well, these are exciting times for us”.
Lorinda Brown, a seasoned veteran of the game since her first World Cup in 2006, has played both rugby formats and is a shining example of the attitude pervasive in the Springbok squad. “ I’m very privileged to be given a contract,” she says, adding “...it’s the beginning of new things.” This is a theme that runs through all the conversations with the team: they may have worked hard to get here but they are humble and appreciative of the opportunity they have been given. They see it as exactly that, an opportunity - and they are doing everything to ensure that they make the most of it. This is their time and the start of a new era and they are very aware they are at the forefront of what so many have dreamed of.
This attitude is in no small way down to the management team as well. They are ensuring that the values and grounded nature of the team stays, despite not only being the central program but also that this is first time in the history of South African women’s rugby that the team has qualified as one of the core teams on the IRB Women’s World Series circuit. What will be critical is how they balance this pressure with having previously not been one of the core teams, as the top four teams in the table at the end of the season will automatically qualify for places in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games - and this is the huge prize that the team is very focused on being a part of.
The team may be one of the most culturally diverse, blending age and format variations and yet it works. It is interesting to observe behind the scenes how they all interact and how they are ‘a family’. I have spent a great deal of time off the pitch with the team over the years and would have been able to see if things were different - but the bond and comradery is very apparent. Whether it’s competing at ‘Mario cart’ or the senior players helping the young players find their feet, they all have the same ethos and aim. They have all had to earn their place in a very small and select team, they have worked very hard for it and made many sacrifices along the way. The key is that they all know that they were selected for a reason and that in the same way their team mates were too.
This knowledge pulls the team together with the same goals and attitude. The interesting thing is that they never set their sight on simply achieving ‘good’ - as Shona-Leah Weston said, “...we want to win gold.” They are on the field together, helping to unite South Africa. For players like Lorinda it’s also about showing the next generation that they can do it. As she says, “...women are unique, get out there and do it! ”
The thing that endears them is their openness. They are happy to share their personal struggles with competing at this level and I won’t quote them but it shows a genuiness that is part of the makeup of the team. They are in this together, pulling in the same direction, proud of where they have come from and what they are achieving.
I have always felt welcome with the team and look forward to seeing how the next couple of years unfold for the Springbok family.