South Africa will take their first step on the road it is hoped will lead them back to the Women’s Rugby World Cup stage on Friday when they open their Rugby Africa Women’s Cup 2019 campaign against Uganda at Bosman Stadium.
Matches against Madagascar, on 13 August, and Kenya four days later will follow in Brakpan with the continental competition’s winners securing their place at New Zealand 2021.
The Springbok Women sat out the 2017 edition of the showpiece tournament – taking no part in qualification – as SA Rugby sought “to put our house in order”.
That decision meant the team went more than four years without a competitive international fixture, a run that was ended with a three-test tour of Europe last November.
With a new coach in Stanley Raubenheimer at the helm, the Springbok Women won a warm-up game against the UK Armed Forces but lost the three tests against Wales, Spain and Italy.
A massive positive
Given it was the – much-changed – team’s first taste of international competition since a 36-0 defeat to Spain at WRWC 2014 in France (pictured right) and that two of the losses were by two scores or less, Raubenheimer has understandably taken positives from the trip.
“It was massive,” he told World Rugby. “Especially for me coming out of a different system just to understand what is happening in the women’s game and where we are and to test ourselves against some of the best teams in Europe.
“Just to see what needs to be done, and it was a good experience for us, it put us in a better state. We know what to expect, we know where we are and what needs to be done to qualify for the World Cup, and obviously to be competitive in every test we play so that’s the idea behind everything.”
Despite only playing three test matches in almost five years, South Africa remain 11th in the World Rugby Women’s Rankings. But Raubenheimer knows their time away has had an impact.
“To be out of any competition for a number of years it’s always a challenge coming back,” he said.
Moving in the right direction
“But I think the reason for going out was to put our house in order and get a proper system going, and I think the system is paying the reward for our national team at this moment in time.
“We’re not the finished article yet but at least we’re moving in the right direction. We can be competitive, we were competitive against Wales, against Italy and against Spain.
“So, it shows that the programme that we’ve followed is paying off dividends and hopefully it can continue bringing through much better athletes, much more conditioned athletes, because there’s a standard to achieve and everyone is working to achieve those standards to be able to compete on the international level.”
Raubenheimer has been able to call on three players with World Cup experience – Celeste Adonis, Tayla Kinsey and Zenay Jordaan (main picture) – for the Women’s Cup but captain Nolusindiso Booi will miss the tournament.
Losing Booi to injury has underlined the importance of last year’s European tour to the coach, who has vowed to keep his squad “calm and [help them] understand how to handle the pressure.”
Feet on the ground
Given that South Africa are ranked 17 places higher than their closest challengers Kenya, Raubenheimer accepts that there will be an expectation for the hosts to progress.
“You’re 11th in the world, you’re the top-ranked team in the qualifying tournament, people expect you to win and win convincingly,” he said.
“But, look, for me it’s not that easy, sport is a thing that once you don’t respect it enough something else can happen to your aspirations.
“So, the fact that we keep our feet on the ground and take it one game at a time, that’s our attitude.
7⃣ players are in line to make their Springbok Women's debut's against Uganda in the @RugbyAfrique Women's Cup on Friday. See who they are and get the team here ⛓️https://t.co/DrldehfjSc @Springboks pic.twitter.com/0TGuaBgoH4— Springbok Women (@WomenBoks) August 8, 2019
“There is pressure, we understand the pressure and it’s no use running away from it. We must embrace it and work within it.”
A different perspective
Raubenheimer admits it has been difficult to compile detailed analysis of Kenya, Uganda or Women’s Cup wildcards Madagascar who will make their international debut in the competition, but he insists his side must focus solely on playing to their strengths.
If they can do that then the coach is confident that a potentially transformative return to the top table of international women’s rugby is within reach for the Springbok Women.
Asked how big qualification would be for South Africa, Raubenheimer replied: “Massive, massive.
“I think, from a South African point of view, it would just grow the numbers more because it’s just logical. To play for something and to aspire to play in the international stage is one massive thing, but to play and go and compete in a World Cup is just putting it in a different perspective.
“So, I think that, to be able to do that will give a lot of emphasis into our programme and for the younger girls to aspire to.”
All games will be live streamed via https://livestream.com/baruchmedia/WomensRugby