It’s not usual for a coach of a provincial rugby side to wish good fortune on a rival. Especially when those rivals lock horns in a domestic cup final. But given the exceptional circumstances in women’s rugby in South Africa this season, an exception has been made.
“In a way it would actually be a good thing for everyone if the Bulls Daisies win,” admits Stanley Raubenheimer, whose Western Province side enter the deciding match of the Women’s Premier Division as distant second favourites on Saturday. “What [the Daisies] have done this season has sent a message to the rest of the country.”
Before the start of the campaign, the Pretoria-based union became the first and only fully professional domestic women’s side in South Africa. Their players spent more contact time together and in training. Their coaches could push them harder knowing they’ll get plenty of time to recover.
As a consequence they blitzed the competition, winning all 12 of their league games and scoring 111 tries in the process and conceding just seven. In every game their relentlessly drilled set-pieces, their better physical conditioning and their more sophisticated attacking patterns made mincemeat of their opponents.
“They embarrassed a lot of teams,” says Raubenheimer, who watched as his team, which finished second on the league table, lost 43-5 and 41-0 during the campaign.
“Hopefully that embarrassment can lead to change. There are proud unions in this country and none of them will be happy watching the Bulls smash them. No matter what happens on Saturday they’ve shown what happens when you properly invest in women’s rugby.”
Not so according to Lusanda Dumke, the Daisies’ captain who is playing in her tenth final and aiming for her seventh title, having helped forge a dynasty with Border Ladies in the Eastern Cape province.
“None of what came before will matter if we don’t win.” Dumke explains. “We have to win. That is the message. We’ve had this aim since we first got together. We told ourselves that we’d be judged by the trophies we win and we want to win.
“‘Don’t let up’, that’s been my message to the girls. But I’ve also reminded them to stay humble, to respect the opposition as we’ve done throughout the season. We haven’t won anything yet.”
It is not just personal glory and collective ambition that is driving the Daisies. Dumke says that her side is “representing everyone” in the women’s game in South Africa. She conveys a deep sense of responsibility. She understands her team are holding more than just their own fate in their hands.
“We’re not special, we’re fortunate,” she says. “Every other woman in our game works just as hard as we do except they don’t have the privileges we have. Any one of them could be in our position and we’d be looking from the outside and wishing we were there.
“This is why we’ve gone into every game at 100%. We’ve produced some big scores [on three occasions they registered more than 100 points] because we wanted to honour the women playing against us. We were determined to give them the respect they deserved.”
After these maulings, Dumke would speak to her vanquished and bloodied opponents. They’d ask her what training was like and how some of her younger teammates, especially those with no understanding of what being an amateur meant, were getting on.
As a senior member of the Springboks set-up, Dumke urged her competitors in other provinces to put pressure on those with their hands on the levers of power in the game. Until they follow the example set in Pretoria, change in women’s rugby will come slow.
“We want competition,” Dumke says. “Even if it means we don’t win for a few years we want to have a rival that can actually compete. And if we think about the national team, it will only make the Springboks better. We’re 12th in the world rankings. I know we’re better than that.”
It hasn’t all been seamless mauls and watertight scrums, though, as some unforeseen challenges have arisen as a consequence of professionalism.
“We found that we needed to educate some of the girls on how to handle this extra income and all the extra time they had,” reveals assistant coach Mandisa Williams.
“After the second round we had a training session and we told the girls to go rest for a day. But then we saw them all out and about Pretoria on an endless shopping spree! We had to explain that their rest was just as important as their training and that they should spend all their money at once.
“I know it can sound like we’re babying them but there isn’t that ingrained culture in the women’s game that there has been in the men’s game for a long time. We expected them to act professional but that wasn’t fair. So we had to provide some assistance.
“There were a lot of players who were mentally exhausted. You have to understand that many of them gave up careers to play rugby full time. Some left university. All of them have different social lives. It’s been an adjustment for everyone.”
Williams has walked every path in this sport. She represented her country as a rampaging No. 8, worked as a commentator as well as an administrator and has stepped on every rung in the game in South Africa. This season, she says, is unlike anything she has experienced.
“I’m filled with hope,” she beams. “We’re a sleeping giant, that’s for sure. People talk about England and New Zealand but if every province in this country copied us and paid their female players we would compete for World Cups soon.”
First, though, the Daisies have to win. Raubenheimer commends his opponents for their skill-set and physical attributes but isn’t overawed by them.
“The thing they have is time, and that is something you can buy with professional contracts,” the Western Province coach explains. “I’m not saying we’d be as good as them if we had as much time with our team, but we’d be a lot closer.
“We’re fighting an uphill battle. Professionalism is like size on a rugby pitch. The good big player is always going to beat the good little player if everything else is even. So yes, if they win I won’t be sad because I recognise the bigger picture.
“But that doesn’t mean we’re going to lie down and hand them the win. We’re going to play with desire and hunger and if they want to win they’ll have to fight for it.”
Even the most hardcore Western Province would hopefully echo their coach’s sentiments. The same is true for fans of the Lions in Johannesburg, the Sharks in Durban and the rest across a rugby-mad nation.
For too long half the population has been ignored and consigned to the fringes. Finally a team has been taken seriously and they’re delivering on the pitch. They’ve shown the way. Now the rest must follow.