Sport

UPPING THE GAME

SA Rugby Union pledges to boost professional women’s league

SA Rugby Union pledges to boost professional women’s league
Raeeqah Hendricks of WP is tackled by Aretha Thorno of the Lions during their Women's Premier Division match at City Park in Cape Town on 4 May 2024. (Photo: Ashley Vlotman / Gallo Images)

The growth of women’s rugby has increased globally in recent times and South Africa is now joining in by committing to professionalise the domestic game.

The South African Rugby Union (Saru) and World Rugby have been in a two-day workshop in Cape Town this week to discuss the growth of women’s rugby in the country.

Top of the agenda is establishing a professional domestic women’s rugby league in South Africa by 2025. Saru is looking to add to women’s sports in the country by professionalising its domestic structures after cricket recently did the same.

There have been promises for soccer to experience the same long-awaited revolution – particularly after Banyana Banyana’s strong showing at the World Cup last year – but nothing has come of it so far.

Saru president Mark Alexander explained the challenges that women’s sports face in the country.

“We’re not a first-world country,” he said. “We don’t have the support that first-world countries pump into sport. We understand that.

“As South African Rugby (Saru), the majority of our funds we raise ourselves. Government gives us a grant but the grant is not big enough to do what we want to do.

women's rugby

SA Rugby president Mark Alexander at the Women’s Rugby workshop with World Rugby at Southern Sun Newlands in Cape Town on 13 May 2024. (Photo: Ashley Vlotman / Gallo Images)

“We need to find innovative ways to achieve our objectives. We want to unlock the corporate space.

“We want to back women’s sports… There are opportunities but we just need to change the mindset locally and we need support for the women’s game.”

Cricket South Africa was assisted with a R15-million boost by the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture, to help assist in the professionalisation of the sport.

Saru is looking at taking a similar approach in its efforts to get the league off the ground before their ideals of private companies hopping on board to sustain it.

“We don’t have enough funding for women’s sports in our country,” Alexander said. “We want to make sure that the women’s game takes its rightful place by unlocking certain initiatives.

“We’ve commissioned a company to help us give a proposal to the Treasury department.

“Hopefully in the next few months, it will advance through the government process to get that approved.”

women's rugby

Jakkie Cilliers of the Bulls Daisies on her way to score a try during the Women’s Premier Division final against Western Province at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria on 26 August 2023. (Photo: Gordon Arons / Gallo Images)

The other option Alexander suggested is cutting down the number of teams in the prospective league. There are eight teams in the Women’s Premier Division and a further eight in the Women’s First Division.

“Maybe we should look at having fewer franchises or teams to kickstart the professional league and grow it over time as corporate [South Africa] buys into the vision of women’s sports in our country,” he said.

An increase in visibility

This past weekend, the Springbok women beat Madagascar 46-17. The win meant they retained the Africa Cup and also qualified for the World Cup in England next year.

South Africa’s performances in Africa have always been good – it’s on the global stage where they struggle. The Bok women are currently 12th in World Rugby’s rankings, relatively poor compared with the men’s side who head their rankings.

The idea is that a professional domestic women’s league would help filter the talent up to Springbok level.

“Progress is what is most important, no matter where you start from,” said Sally Horrox, director of Women’s Rugby at World Rugby. 

“Profile and visibility come top-down in the game and it comes through the leading 18 nations that play in WXV, that work their way to qualify for the World Cup,” Horrox said.

“As South Africa is one of those leading nations that has a tremendously strong rugby heritage… the opportunity in front of it to progress is exceptional. That’s why we’re working with South Africa, to see that.

“Increased profile and visibility will lead, hopefully, to the additional investment and support that comes with successful, winning teams and that national team that supercharges growth.”

Try time for Unathi Mali of the Bulls Daisies during their Women’s Premier Division final against Western Province at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria on 26 August 2023. (Photo: Gordon Arons / Gallo Images)

Challenges

Almost all of Saru’s current income is generated through the Springboks via broadcast rights sales and sponsorships, as well as Test match fee income. Without assistance from government or the private sector, Saru will be running the prospective league at a loss.

Horrox, who has established women’s leagues in Germany, the USA and Italy, noted that it is not an overnight process and in some cases could take up to a decade to become sustainable.

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But a successful women’s team is important for Saru. Not only are the optics bad, considering the success of the men’s side, but with the continued growth of the women’s game, South Africa doesn’t want to be left even further behind by remaining stagnant.

“There is some talk in the URC (United Rugby Championship) about forming a women’s league,” Alexander added, noting that Sanzaar (the body that oversees The Rugby Championship) is also looking at forming a women’s competition.

South Africa is playing catch-up in growing the women’s game, but, despite the financial difficulties, seems to be moving in the right direction. DM

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