Acid test for Springbok women

Scoring: Babalwa Latsha (with the ball) began playing in 2014 and is now a Springbok. (Michael Sheehan)

Scoring: Babalwa Latsha (with the ball) began playing in 2014 and is now a Springbok. (Michael Sheehan)

The Springbok Women begin a European tour this weekend that will go a long way towards gauging roughly where they stand in women’s rugby internationally.

It’s the first time the team is travelling for a Test since 2014. Much of the squad will be putting on the green-and-gold for the first time in fifteens and this contributes to the overflow of question marks on and off the field.

READ MORE: Springbok squad announced for Women’s Rugby World Cup

Coach Stanley Raubenheimer has nonetheless attempted to spin it as a positive.

“I am pleased with the quality of the team,” he said. “There is a good mix of youth and experience, which is perfect as we start building towards something bigger and better for women’s rugby in South Africa.”

It’s the “something better” that is important to understand.

Hard lessons

The game against the UK Armed Forces, about as arbitrary an opponent as you can get, on Friday signals what amounts to a rebirth for the side.

It all ties back to events four years ago — the reason we now have the large contingent of youth that Raubenheimer spoke of.

The performance of the team at the 2014 World Cup was so appalling that it changed the course of the code for the next four years.
In their three group games — against France, Australia and Wales — they ­produced a mere nine points (or a penalty per match) and 116 points crossed the Springbok tryline. There were no notches in anything but the loss column. Ninth- to 12th-placed playoffs started off well enough, with a 25-24 win over Samoa, but Spain soon reignited the burn of embarrassment with a 36-0 thrashing.

The scorelines and overall play made it excruciatingly obvious that the structures back home were not providing near adequate enough preparation for international rugby. The South African Rugby Union (Saru) decided to put all travel on hold while everyone worked to improve the women’s game around the country and provide a rich pipeline of talent to the national team.

Women’s youth training centres, often abbreviated and referred to as YTCs, were set up in the provinces. Their goal was to provide girls aged 14 to 18 with resources that would guide them in all aspects of rugby and go far beyond on-field tactics.

Advice about healthy eating, lifestyle and education was offered on top of a venue for regular practice sessions.

“The recruitment of players for the YTCs is done in schools and in communities through the staging of rugby festivals, which entails ­playing matches and doing rugby coaching,” says Saru women’s rugby operations manager Mahlubi Puzi. “This is conducted in a fun-filled environment in which girls are encouraged to try out the sport in noncontact sessions.”

Puzi estimates that there are about 10 000 women and girls playing the sport — a number that would almost certainly be far lower had there not been a conscious drive to increase it.

After interest began to grow in the centres, it was decided to open them up to girls as young as 11 and give them an opportunity to get their hands on a ball early in the form of sevens and touch rugby.

“The products of the YTC programme have certainly made a difference in terms of the quality of rugby being played in the interprovincial competition,” Puzi says. “Most of the provincial teams this year fielded YTC graduates, while four players in the current Springbok squad that will be touring to Europe are the graduates of the programme.”

Those four players are Yonela Ngxingolo, Aphiwe Ngwevu, Felicia Jacobs and Alana-Lee Horne.

New beginning

Felicia Jacobs is a product of the women’s youth training centres set up after a disastrous showing in the 2014 World Cup. (Shaun Roy/Gallo Images)

For most of the squad, however, this experience will feel very new — only four members of the team played in that 2014 debacle.

Take Babalwa Latsha, for instance. She only began playing rugby in this Springbok side’s hiatus years.

“There’s tremendous change in our rugby,” Latsha says. “Since its inception in 2004, South African women’s rugby has taken major strides to develop the sport at a local level.”

In many ways, Latsha is a symbol of the accelerated development that Saru dreams of for the code. Every year since her first run-out in 2014, has marked a milestone: in 2015 she began playing provincial rugby for Western Province; in 2016 she was named their player of the year; she received SA Rugby’s women’s top achiever award in 2017; and, if she starts on Friday as expected, 2018 will herald her first Springbok Test cap.

Along with 27 others, she arrived in Stellenbosch two weeks ago for a special training camp ahead of their tour. It’s a new opportunity for a new vision to be established ahead of the big Tests. Expectations are understandably tempered, with the main focus presumably on identifying the areas that most desperately need improvement.

“It’s fantastic, you know,” Latsha says of the camp. “The ladies are super excited. We’re all looking forward to representing our nation on the international stage. Even at this early stage we’re working incredibly hard.”

Raubenheimer says he has no idea of what to expect from this tour. It’s hard to blame him; he’s barely seen any evidence of what his players can do in a competitive arena.

Much of Europe, alongside New Zealand, has set a high mark for the development of the women’s game. The level of competitiveness the Springboks offer will go a long way towards determining how the South Africans are doing in their own growth.

“What I am certain about is that it will be a tough tour as Wales, Italy and Spain played in the 2017 Women’s Rugby World Cup,” the coach says. “So this tour will serve as a fantastic platform to measure where we are in terms of the current international standards.”


Touring squad

Nolusindiso Booi (captain, lock), Western Province; Kirsten Conrad (flyhalf), Western Province; Karthy Dludla (lock), KZN; Lusanda Dumke (flanker), Border; Annique Geswind (hooker), Western Province; Nosiphiwo Goda (winger), Border; Lindelwa Gwala (hooker), KZN; Aseza Hele (flanker), Eastern Province; Alana-Lee Horne (utility back), Western Province; Felicia Jacobs (scrumhalf), Western Province; Charmaine Kayser (No 8), Western Province; Tayla Kinsey (scrumhalf), KZN; Babalwa Latsha (prop), Western Province; Thantaswa Macingwana (hooker), Blue Bulls; Kamohele Makoele (flanker), Free State; Nthabiseng Marutla (lock), Blue Bulls; Vuyolwethu Maqholo (utility back), Western Province; Sinazo Mcatshulwa (flanker), Western Province; Pennbry McNamara (hooker), Golden Lions; Katlego Moremi (prop), Blue Bulls; Zintle Mpupha (flyhalf), SA Rugby; Zinhle Ndawonde (centre), KZN; Demi Nel (centre), Western Province; Aphiwe Ngwevu (centre), Border; Yonela Ngxingolo (prop), Border; Fundiswa Plaatjie (scrumhalf), Border; Snenhlanhla Shozi (fullback), Border; Bernice Strydom (lock), Free State

Fixtures

UK Armed Forces, London, November 2

Wales, Cardiff Arms Park, November 10

Spain, Villajoyosa, November 17

Italy, Prato, November 25

Luke Feltham

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