One day the hope in South Africa is that the country will have a national women’s rugby team every bit as successful as the men’s. Presently, one is ranked number one and the other is 13th.

But the appointment of former Ireland captain Lynne Cantwell is an encouraging sign that the South African Rugby Union (SARU) is determined to close the gap and make South Africa a rugby nation to be feared on two fronts.

Cantwell, whose 12-year international career included four Rugby World Cups in 15s and one in sevens, started working as SARU’s head of women’s rugby high performance in January, and she will play a key role in preparing the team for the challenge that awaits at Rugby World Cup 2021.

But the 39-year-old former centre says her new brief will not only focus on improving results at the elite end of the game but also on broadening the player base in the system as a whole and improving the pathway for players to progress because, ultimately, they are all interlinked.

For the time being she is based in London, and then the plan is to travel over to South Africa in July – visa and COVID-19 permitting – with her husband and two young children.

Unique challenges

While not yet based on the ground in South Africa, she is beginning to grasp an understanding of the unique challenges – and opportunities – facing women’s rugby there.

“Obviously, I am not South African and I am not going to pretend to know what it’s like to be a girl in South Africa going through the system. I can only base that on the conversations I’ve had with them and the people on the ground. But I think the landscape is pretty unique,” she said.

“The reality is that it is hard to get into international competitions. Some of that is down to funding and resources and some of that is down to geography and the age of the game there and the structures in place from a women’s rugby point of view.

“One of the great things from a South African point of view is the volume of girls in South Africa that are there and willing and wanting to play sport. It is absolutely humongous and that in itself is a challenge – to be able to understand and build a system that allows them to get into rugby. The more we can get into the system will obviously help drive performance.

“There has been a lot of good work done to date and we want to build on that,” she added. “Mahlubi Puzi was the previous development manager and he came up with the system we have got at the moment where we have eight youth training centres across the country. A lot of Springbok Women have come from those systems.

“We just want to make sure that any girl coming into the system is exposed to and gets to experience as much rugby as possible.

“There are a lot of opportunities for girls to drop out of the sport because the competitions don’t link up or there isn’t a huge amount of competitions to drive performance.

“And there are things that aren’t necessarily unique to South Africa but are synonymous with women’s sport in general: we need good coaching to learn technically and tactically and we need hours on the pitch to put that into practice. All of those things we want to look at over the next couple of years.”

Catalyst for growth

Relative to the men’s game which is steeped in history, women’s rugby in South Africa is in its infancy.

At the last count, 83,000 adult men played rugby in South Africa – 80,000 more than the number of grown women – and the Springbok men have won as many Rugby World Cups as the Springbok Women have actually competed in.

Their best performance was in 2010 when they beat Wales in the pool stages before finishing 10th overall, a position they matched in their last tournament appearance in 2014.

Cantwell understands how a good showing in New Zealand – supported by the right structures in domestic rugby – could be the catalyst for growth in South Africa.

“The Rugby World Cup gives the sport a huge amount of visibility. If girls see an aspirational picture and an aspirational pathway, and what can be achieved, they’ll be interested in getting involved in the sport. We want to see the numbers playing rugby increase a lot over the next couple of years.”

Having been drawn alongside two-time world champions England, Six Nations powerhouse France and Rugby World Cup newcomers Fiji, South Africa go to New Zealand as one of the underdogs.

Stronger, fitter, faster

But Cantwell says preparation time has been good and the upcoming six-team IPL (Inter-Provincial League) Premier competition will provide good game time for the players vying for a place in Stanley Raubenheimer’s Rugby World Cup 2021 squad.

“The girls have been in camp since January – the longest they have ever been together – and then they’ll have a break for three months and go back into the domestic club competition,” Cantwell explained.

“The SARU are committed to the club competition because they want the girls to have as much game time as possible before they come back together again in July before the World Cup.

“They are getting stronger, fitter and faster and I have no doubt over the next couple of months that the coaches will come up with a game plan and refine it to enable them to compete.

“They are up against England and France in games one and two, which are going to be tough, and then Fiji in the last pool game which will be competitive and one we’ll look to target.

“Hopefully, they’ll have a great World Cup and will perform with distinction, which will give them a good baseline to know where they’re at on the world stage.”

Currently ranked 12 places below their male counterparts, there is clear room for improvement and Cantwell believes that if the Springbok Women can start to make serious strides forward it will not only be good for the game in South Africa but women’s rugby as a whole.

“Women’s teams are progressing at different paces, but we definitely want all the superpowers of the sport to have a good women’s team. I know the global game is looking forward to seeing South Africa emerging and competing with the teams at the top.

“If every country competes and can be the best that they can be that will only drive up the standard of the women’s game globally and make it more attractive to watch and to play and attract more support and sponsors.”

Read more: South Africa qualify for Rugby World Cup 2021 >>