Sport

RUGBY

Bok women end RWC2021 campaign on a low, but foundations laid

Bok women end RWC2021 campaign on a low, but foundations laid
Aseza Hele of South Africa in action during the Women’s Rugby World Cup Group Stage match against England at Waitakere Stadium in Auckland, New Zealand, 23 October 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Andrew Cornaga)

South Africa’s failed campaign at the 2021 Rugby World Cup was not unexpected — but it must be the start of a new chapter for women’s rugby.

No one expected the Springbok Women to win Rugby World Cup (RWC) 2021 (being played in 2022 in New Zealand), or even to make the last four. But there was hope that they could reach the quarterfinals as one of the two best third-place finishers in the pool phase.

To achieve that, the Bok women needed to beat Fiji in their second pool match. Considering the other two teams in Pool C were world No 1 England and No 4 France, winning the clash between No 11 South Africa and No 21 Fiji was the target.

bok women england

Sadia Kbeya of England in action during the Women’s Rugby World Cup Group Stage match against the Springboks at Waitakere Stadium in Auckland, New Zealand, 23 October 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Andrew Cornaga)

Losing that match 24-17 last week sucked all life out of the campaign after a 40-5 loss to France in the opening match on 8 October, which was a much better performance than the final scoreline indicated.

It meant the Boks went into the clash against England on Sunday, 23 October knowing their chances of achieving their stated objective were done. Coach Stanley Raubenheimer opted to rotate the squad and give youngsters a chance.

Turning point

The inevitable loss against England — a humbling 75-0 thrashing — was disappointing but, with a bigger picture in mind, it could be a turning point.

In 1998, the England men took a callow team on a tough southern hemisphere tour and lost 76-0 to Australia, but they laid a foundation for their 2003 World Cup-winning side.

South Africa’s women’s programme is in its infancy, relative to the men’s team, so this is not to suggest they will win the next World Cup, but there has been progress.

The Bok women played their first Test only in 2004 and between 2013 and 2018 they didn’t play a single Test. Since 2018, when the team was prioritised on the company organogram, they have played 13 Tests and won five.

bok women england

Poppy Cleall of England in action during the Women’s Rugby World Cup Group Stage match against South Africa at Waitakere Stadium in Auckland, New Zealand, 23 October 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Andrew Cornaga)

The road ahead has been clearly defined, although the resources directed at women’s rugby by the South Africa Rugby Union (Saru) are modest compared with the men’s game.

There are only 19 contracted women players versus more than 60 for the men. Their salaries are, however, lower, which director of rugby Rassie Erasmus confirmed in a media briefing last week.

The men’s Springboks account for 80% of Saru’s income through broadcast rights and sponsorships for competitions and tournaments they are involved in, which underlines the challenges facing the women’s game.

In austere financial times, investment in professional women’s rugby comes at a cost for Saru. The women’s game is unlikely to positively impact the balance sheet for years to come, but it’s a long-term vision, just like development on the field.

“It got to a point where women’s 15s is now our second-highest priority. It is ranked higher than the Junior Springboks, as well as the Blitzboks. So, it’s the men’s Springboks and women’s Springboks,” Erasmus said last week.

“I believe if we didn’t intervene, they wouldn’t have made the progress they have made. The Japanese men’s side, in 1995, conceded 145 points to the All Blacks.

“We prevented that from happening to the Bok women. We’ve now got 19 contracted players who’ve played a lot of Test matches… Yes, we targeted the Fiji match [as a barometer of our progress], but I don’t think it was a failure. There’s definitely been progress.”

Development

Although Erasmus didn’t see the Fiji loss as a sign of failed ambition, coach Raubenheimer admitted the team had not met its pre-tournament objective.

bok women raubenheimer

Springbok women’s rugby team coach Stanley Raubenheimer. (Photo: Lefty Shivambu / Gallo Images)

“Our goal was [to beat] Fiji, and we didn’t achieve that,” Raubenheimer said after the 75-0 loss to England. “So, from a results point of view, it was an unsuccessful tournament. But from a squad and team development point of view, we used to be a one-pass team but at least now we can make two or three passes.

“We are still not the finished article, but we knew that coming here. Our set piece was good although today was a bit of a challenge, but we were playing the number one team in the world — a fully professional outfit versus a semiprofessional outfit, and it showed.

“It showed clearly there is work to be done in that area, but the effort is the thing that has made me most proud of today’s performance.”

Better for the experience

Although the results were disappointing, as the team reflected on their campaign in New Zealand, there was a sense that it was an important building block. It’s the start of a foundation that will hopefully see a strong Bok women’s house constructed in years to come.

“It is big for them, they will have learnt a lot and grown as players,” captain Nolusindiso Booi said when asked about the young players in the team.

“When we are coming back for another World Cup, there will be a strong core of the team with a lot of experience because we have played the best in the world — we have played France, we have played England — so know when we come back, we will come back stronger.”

Raubenheimer concurred: “This tournament showed where we need to be better and where we have shown growth and that is valuable for the road ahead,” the coach said. “Most of these players should be around for the next World Cup and will be much better from this experience.

“The next thing is to do a review of this whole World Cup process. It was the first for 99% of our squad and there are lessons that we need to reflect on.”

Despite missing out the last eight, the show goes on and the quarterfinal lineups were finalised on Sunday:

Saturday, 29 October: France v Italy and New Zealand v Wales. Northland Events Centre, Whangārei.

Sunday 30 October: England v Australia and Canada v USA. Waitākere Stadium, Auckland. DM

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