Don't compare Springbok Women to the men's team, says coach Stanley Raubenheimer

As the Springbok Women embark on career-changing international games, coach Stanley Raubenheimer wants South Africa to understand just how much sportswomen have to go through to play a game the country loves.

The Springbok Women's team ready for the November 2021 Series tour in France. Picture: Twitter/@WomenBoks

CAPE TOWN - Just before the Springbok Women (or Imbokodo as they’ve fondly become known) jetted off to Europe for their first games outside of the South African borders since 2018, head coach Stanley Raubenheimer caught up with Eyewitness News Sport regarding the women’s game and more.

The Bok women will play in three Test matches against France, Wales and the Barbarians, as well as a competitive match against England U20s. These games are vital as South Africa build up to the 2021 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, which has been postponed to 2022 due to COVID-19 restrictions.

It’s the first time since 2014 that South Africa will be at a Women’s Rugby World Cup, and it will only be their fourth World Cup appearance overall. It’s no secret that the women’s team don’t have the same budgets or resources as the Springbok men, granted the men’s side is more established and have won three World Cups while producing some of the world’s best players. So, imagine having two sides of that quality in one country? SA Rugby have clearly been thinking along those lines as well, this is the first year that they introduced a double round Premier Division tournament that featured six teams and was broadcast on SuperSport before the Currie Cup games.

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PROFESSIONAL EXPERIENCE

Head coach Stanley Raubenheimer, who was appointed in 2018 with one of the main objectives to lead the team to the World Cup, has great admiration for how his players have managed to get through this season.

“Our players don’t play enough rugby, it’s not a secret, and to have a double-round premiership competition where we could play 10 matches this year was invaluable the experience for the players. The reality is that you had a group of players who had to be ready without any rugby and play 10 matches back-to-back, it speaks volumes of the caliber of players we’ve got in South Africa – the tenacity, the real commitment, the attitude of all women’s rugby players in South Africa. I just take my hat off to them."

He continued: “They didn’t have eight weeks preparation like the men, they didn’t have X, Y and Z; they didn’t have the resources, whatever you want to say, they came in cold, and they had to play 10 matches on short notice, and they came through that competition, in my view, with flying colours.”

According to a 2020 survey done by SA Rugby this year, there are 3,942 registered female rugby players in the country. Whether it’s due to the recent TV exposure or the World Cup qualification, the number of registered players has grown by almost 1,000 in a year. In 2019, 3,057 women’s rugby players in South Africa.

Two South African players also signed professional contracts overseas. Babalwa Latsha became the first African women’s player to go pro with SD Eibar Femenino in 2020 and then recently, Zintle Mpupha signed with Exeter Chiefs. The women’s rugby leagues overseas are more established and better funded. On this side of the world though, women’s rugby is still an amateur sport.

LIMITED ACCESS TO BASIC AMENITIES

Raubenheimer said the need for international experienced has been recognised in South Africa, but also said there's a catch-22.

“You want more players to go overseas, you want them to pick up the experience, but you also don’t want to send people overseas for the sake of sending someone overseas and then they don’t give a good account of themselves because of reasons outside of their control. SA Rugby is doing a fantastic job of putting the infrastructure in place, hence this double-round premiership competition. Looking at what’s happening at their home unions, we need to jack that up a bit more to have proper conditioning coaches and medical staff for the women’s game locally first, so when an athlete goes overseas she doesn’t look out of her depth and she actually understands what it is to be a professional rugby player.”

The coach says repeatedly that things are very different in the women’s game, despite the players also wearing the famous Springbok emblem on their chests and heading on an end-of-year tour:

“We have to be inventive in the women’s game and you can’t compare yourself to what is happening in the men’s game. So, what we’ve done after our camp the last eight to nine weeks weeks, we trained in different hubs. Across the country the girls were kept busy within their union structure, through some of the SA Rugby infrastructure – the Youth Training Centre coaches were involved and then coaches from the union side.”

What seems like mere basics for every team in a rugby-mad country like South Africa - having access to their home stadiums gym or high-performance centers, physiotherapists, ice baths or even the physical field you play on - the women need special permission to use the amenities. Raubenheimer commended the unions for assisting the women's team, even if it is a little.

“We know from a resource point there’s challenges within the sport generally. But I am very glad there’s at least a willingness from unions to assist where they can by allowing the players to train on the field, access to the gym facilities of senior teams, having a little bit of access to the medical team when they are available for the players.”

FAR BEHIND THE REST OF THE WORLD BUT CATCHING UP

The Springbok Women are a young international side, a teenager if you will, having only played their first game in 2004 against Wales in Gqeberha, which they lost 8-5 . In contrast, Wales’ first ever game was played back in 1987 and prior to that, Welsh players were selected to represent Great Britain with the first representative side featuring players from Wales against France in 1986.

The French, who are even older than Wales, played their first game 39 years ago. But they are on the Boks’ radar due to them being the team South Africa will face in their opening game of the postponed Rugby World Cup.

With all this knowledge and the recent buy-in from the unions, will this make the Imbokodo’s competitive at the World Cup? Raubenheimer says they are getting there.

“Look, we're almost 15 years behind the rest of the world, hence this tour is important for me personally. I don’t want to play the opening game of the World Cup against France and that must be the first we actually played against them.

“The reason we are going for the top six teams over this period is to get our big moments. Maybe we'll lose by 60, 70 points, maybe we won't, but if we don’t test ourselves against the top teams in the world you’ll never know how far our development is. We are far behind the rest of the world but we are catching up and the players are doing their bit, especially from a condition side, to hit the numbers."

CONDITIONING

Recently, the squad played in a two Test series against Kenya in Stellenbosch. South Africa won the series and managed to bleed in some much-needed new talent. For this upcoming tour, there are six uncapped players in the touring squad – Roseline Botes, Lerato Makua, Monica Mazibukwana, Simamkele Namba, Nadine Roos and Tania Scholtz. Along with beefing up the squad, the Bok management team will be focusing on specific areas of play during the tour.

“First thing is to test and assess our conditioning. Can we take the hits that will most probably come our way? Can we dish them out as well? Are the French and English ladies so much bigger than what we see them on television or not?

“The second part is from a game point of view. The big thing is can we hold on to the ball for long periods of time. Our biggest focus would be in our attacking breakdowns and how do we take ball into contact, if we want to take it into contact, and how we secure that ball. We are looking a lot at our players with ball in-hand and how do they manipulate and use whatever the skill is that they need to use in a specific situation.”

The next 12 months is not just big for the players, but for the Raubenheimer too. It will be his first World Cup in charge, and being a former player himself, he is very aware of the significance of being part of a team that will feature at rugby’s biggest event. This will add to his already colourful coaching resume, which includes coaching at the SA Rugby Academy. He also assisted former Springbok coach Peter de Villiers in Zimbabwe and he was involved with the Cats at Super Rugby level before that.

One of the games on tour will be against the Barbarians at the legendary Twickenham Stadium – a first for the South African Women’s team and another feather in Coach Stanley’s cap.

“We are very privileged to be invited to take part in that festival and we’ve jumped at that opportunity to showcase what our team can do and hopefully we will do the fixture justice by providing an entertaining match and not so much focus on structure and things like that. Almost not making the game too academic, but more romantic in my view,” the coach said laughing.

OVERCOMING MASSIVE CHALLENGES WITH LIMITED RESOURCES

The father of five - four daughters and a son - seems to be up for the challenge of being at the helm of growing the women’s game in South Africa, but he is realistic as to what still needs to done, and in a sports-mad country where fans demand the best from all teams, Raubenheimer asks for patience.

“We want to make South Africa proud of the achievements of what we can do on the field but recognise that it’s going to take time.

“I want people to appreciate the sacrifices that these women are making to play this wonderful game that I enjoyed as a youngster and the privileges that I got as a men’s rugby player. If I look at what the girls and women must go through to play this game, I just… I have enormous respect for them first and that is what I want the public to understand. People really don’t know the sacrifices that the woman sportsperson in this country has to go through to do something that they love as much as we love.

“It’s a massive challenge for them to play this game and that they are giving as much as a men’s rugby player are giving towards this sport, with very limited resources.”

Despite the challenges the management and players face daily, they continue to enjoy the game and wear the green and gold proudly. There’s a reason the team adopted the name Imbokodo, which in isiZulu means “a rock”, often used in the famous apartheid-era resistance song “Wathint' abafazi, wathint' imbokodo” meaning you strike a woman, you strike a rock. A befitting name, don’t you think?

Springbok Women’s fixtures:
- France: 6 November
- Wales: 13 November
- Barbarian Women: 27 November