Women's rugby in need of support

Jocelyn Creed started playing rugby in 2002 with Villagers Rugby Club. She played Western Province rugby for three seasons. Then she was appointed to manage Villagers ladies’ team and the Western Province ladies’ team during their season.

Creed and her friends, Tally Kunz and Roby Walker, noticed the lack of attention paid to women’s rugby and opened Ntombi Rugby Academy in May last year.
The academy, based in Cape Town, focuses on introducing girls to rugby and they work with 40 girls between the ages of six and 11.

In South African rugby women are allowed to join clubs only at the age of 18. Last year the women’s rugby team played in the World Cup in Canada for the first time. They lost all their games. Creed believes the reason for this is the lack of experience in the team.

“There are talented rugby players, but they do not reach the [international] standard, the gap [between South Africa and the rest of world] is very big.”

She said in New Zealand women had been playing competitive rugby since the 1970s, hence the gap in the standard.

Creed believes that women’s rugby does not get the same recognition as men’s because of typecasting. “Women are primarily facing a resistance by men in authority in rugby who believe that women should not play the game and that it is the domain of men only.

“At present women are somewhat at the mercy of men as the clubs and facilities are under their control. Rugby [for women] does not have widespread recognition yet in South Africa. There is stereotyping of women rugby players, which might be putting some women off from playing the game.”

Another thing holding women’s rugby back is that it is difficult to find sponsorship as investors receive little return in terms of media exposure.

Nomsebenzi Tsotsobe, who became the first Springbok women’s rugby captain when South Africa played its first Test in 2004, shared these sentiments.

“Women’s rugby does not get the same exposure as men’s rugby. It is an issue of marketing. One does not hear anything about women’s rugby until we play Test matches,” says the 29-year-old Eastern Province hooker, who is the most capped player for the Springbok women.

Ntombi Rugby Academy aims to produce players who will make the sport as attractive to sponsors as the men’s game is. They emphasise skills, support play and correct running lines and teach players to look for spaces. It does not rely on the traditional approach where bigger players barge over smaller players.

Creed believes the game could use more female fans and referees.

Despite the apparent shortage in female referees, two South African women were chosen to referee in last year’s World Cup. Jenny Bentel was one of them. She joined the Western Province Society in 1998 and since then she has not looked back and is a regular fixture in the Western Province rugby league.

Creed believes responsibilities lie with the provincial unions to promote the women’s game and approach potential sponsors.

Mahlubi Puzi, manager of games development at the South African Rugby Union, agrees with Creed and Tsotsobe about marketing and says promotion is not done well enough.

Puzi says that when South African women’s rugby was introduced a few years ago, the focus was on having as many players as possible. Now it is about developing the skills of the players and improving their quality.

Puzi says the aim is to improve the technical skills of provincial coaches and to build capacity among players.

Puzi says women’s rugby is gaining in popularity in the Eastern Cape because of the strong rugby culture. He says people there support the sport regardless of whether men or women are playing. However, the pace of the support has been slow, he says.

In other provinces women’s rugby has been left to its own devices. “Unfortunately we have not made a breakthrough; South Africa has not transformed enough to understand that women have to be given the same support. But we are promoting the game,” says Puzi.

Although there have been talks about transformation in men’s rugby, the South African Rugby Union is satisfied with the level of transformation in women’s rugby.

Puzi says the one area where the women’s game is better than the men’s is transformation. “Transformation in women’s rugby is self-regulating and the demography of the country is reflected in the teams and in the women who are chosen as referees. We are doing better than any other [traditionally male-dominated] sporting code.”

Unlike their male counterparts, women players lack a collective voice that could help improve their plight.

Ironically the main reason why sport is played, fun, seems to be its undoing.

Piet Heymans, chief executive of the South African Rugby Players’ Association, says the association does not represent women rugby players because they do not have contracts. The association represents only professional players. “They [the women] play only for fun,” he says.

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