Pipeline is the priority in SA women’s rugby rebuild

Pipeline is the priority in SA women’s rugby rebuild
Aphiwe Ngwevu of the Springboks during the Women's World Cup qualifier against Uganda at Bosman Stadium in Brakpan in 2019. As one of the participating teams at RWC 2021, the Springbok women’s side were affected by the postponement. (Photo: Lee Warren / Gallo Images)

South Africa’s 2021 Rugby World Cup campaign in New Zealand will form part of a broader plan to develop the women’s game.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

South Africa’s national women’s rugby team should be more competitive by the time the World Cup rolls around again in 2025 thanks to a revision of national and provincial structures as well as some key appointments. What’s more, it is hoped that interest in the women’s game will grow and that more girls will take up the sport in the coming years.

Rassie Erasmus, South Africa’s director of rugby, put the challenge into perspective recently when he revealed that only 3,000 women compete in the open division. By comparison, as many as 85,000 men play the game at senior level. It’s little wonder that top men’s teams in the Super Rugby, Pro14 and Currie Cup competitions can boast so much depth.

Since Erasmus returned to South Africa in 2018 and addressed the structural issues at national and provincial level, the Springboks have gone on to win the Rugby Championship and the World Cup. Ranked a lowly seventh three years ago, the Boks now sit at the top of the rugby pyramid.

The Springbok Women, however, currently languish at 13th on the World Rugby ladder. What will it take for the national side to climb the rungs and challenge better teams such as England and New Zealand on a regular basis? For the first time, SA Rugby appears to be tackling this complicated question in a serious manner.

Priority list

Erasmus says the Springbok Women have supplanted the Blitzboks as the second-most important rugby team in South Africa. Last week, SA Rugby appointed former Ireland international Lynne Cantwell as its first high-performance manager for Women’s Rugby. The 2021 season may well be remembered as a watershed for the women’s game.

Cantwell played 86 Tests for Ireland and has served as an executive committee board member with Sport Ireland. She holds a degree in sports and exercise science as well as a master’s in physiotherapy. It’s fair to say that she has an intimate understanding of how the women’s game is played and run at various levels.

What’s more, and perhaps most significantly, Cantwell also appears to share Erasmus’s appetite for a challenge.

“I wouldn’t have taken this job if I hadn’t seen such a commitment from the SA Rugby leadership,” Cantwell said at a recent media briefing. “The franchise CEOs also understand that we have a lot of work to do. As we put the structures into place, we will see the results.

“The World Cup in New Zealand is the immediate focus. That is something that is visible and is going to make an impression on 13- or 14-year-old girls across the country. We want to show there is an aspirational pathway.

“My role is a very strategic one that looks to the future,” Cantwell said. “Ultimately we want to build a team for the 2025 and 2029 World Cup tournaments.”

While the national team will be a priority, SA Rugby aims to address the problems with the women’s pipeline. It’s a complicated issue as opportunities at schools are limited to non-existent.

Erasmus expressed his disappointment with the current state of affairs when he revealed that his nine-year-old daughter had no outlet for her rugby obsession. It begs the question, how many potential professionals continue to slip through the cracks?

“We don’t have the correct pathways at school level,” admitted Erasmus. “We’re working closely with the South African Schools Rugby Association [Sasra] to address the matter.

“There are about 200,000 participants — girls and boys — in the Get Into Rugby programme. The boys continue to have opportunities as they get older. The girls unfortunately do not. My youngest daughter is nine, and she’s so keen to play rugby, but she’s just falling in with the boys at her school.

“One thing we got right is the youth training programmes, which cater for girls of 14 years and older. We see the results from these programmes when the girls get to the U20 level or in the case of some in the Springbok Women’s group.

“But nothing is happening between nine and 14. That is something we will look into with Sasra to help create proper pathways. There’s a massive, massive gap there.

“The headmaster and the school decides whether rugby is offered to the girls,” Erasmus said. “Currently there are schools that don’t cater for girls’ rugby after the age of nine. That’s a massive challenge.

“It would be ideal to have the same pathway that boys have. Sure, there will be fewer numbers to start with, but we have to start somewhere. We’d love to get to the point where we have schools competing against one another.”

Generating interest in the women’s domestic tournament is another priority. Erasmus confirms that an increase in resources has led to an increase in Premier Division fixtures. Sponsorship, as well as greater exposure and publicity will boost the competition — and ultimately encourage more girls to take up the game.

“In the past, the ladies might only play three or four games in the Premier Division each season,” said Erasmus. “That’s not enough preparation, especially when you consider that some of the players would go on to play Test matches later in the year.

“I’m positive about the changes we’ve made this year, though, in the build-up to the World Cup.”

Cantwell has contracted 19 women to the national side. A group of 24 are currently in camp, and will be joined by a further 16 players in the coming weeks.

After the camp, they will return to their respective provinces. The six teams in the Premier Division will compete in a double round of matches.

More than 40 women have been identified as players of national interest across the two divisions. Again, steps need to be taken to ensure that the best players are exposed to a higher standard of competition and conditioning as much as possible.

“They only play a single round of matches in the second-tier tournament,” explained Erasmus. “Lynne is currently negotiating for some of those players to be loaned to Premier Division teams.

“For example, if there is a hot prospect for the World Cup that is currently playing for Free State in the First Division, we will try [to] place them in a Premier Division team so that they can play a double round of games.”

The profile of women’s cricket has been boosted since the matches have been televised. The women’s game in South Africa would surely benefit from similar exposure.

Further sponsorship and investment would fast-track the development of the game at junior and senior levels.

“We know SA Rugby has committed to this and we are moving forward with our plans,” Cantwell said. “It will take time.

“After the World Cup campaign we’ll have a barometer of where we are and what we need to do. The more visible the team is, the quicker that process will be.” DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.


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