Behind the great men who pull on a Springbok jersey, there is one even greater woman – public relations and administration manager Annelee Murray.
Growing up in a sports-mad family, Murray always loved sport. She comes from a household where her dad played rugby for Eastern Province, her grandfather served on the board with Danie Craven and she herself played sport provincially at school.
That passion has now blossomed into something really special. Murray's job takes her all around the world. She has worked with seven Springbok captains – André Vos, Bob Skinstad, Corné Krige, John Smit, Victor Matfield, Johann Muller and Jean de Villiers – and has been with the Boks for over 150 Tests.
'When I realised I wasn’t going to go further than being good at school sports, I took my passion to working in sport,' she explains. 'I’ve worked in football and sponsorship, but rugby has always been my real passion. I love the intensity of the 80 minutes of sport, but I follow everything from the Tour de France to American football. I try my best to get to sporting events around the world, but rugby is definitely in my blood.'
Passion keeps her going, but she is an integral part of making sure everything runs smoothly and the players are happy. She does many different things and one of the key parts of her job is to make the players feel at home wherever they are playing.
On match day, she is at the stadium by 8am and makes sure the change room feels like home to the players. Jerseys are put out and everyone's needs are met. From juices to specific snacks, Murray is in charge of making sure everything feels like home.
'Dressing rooms away from home can be very dark and dingy, so we try and make it as green and gold as possible,' she says. 'We try to make it feel like we have a home-ground advantage and give the players a sense of belonging and so that they feel like the country is behind them.'
Once the players arrive at the ground, Murray also makes sure wives, girlfriends, babies and babysitters are taken care of and happy. She believes when the partners are happy, the players are happy. Naturally a happy player means a better output. She also has to ensure that all the behind-the-scenes stuff from media requests to random drug testing requests are seen to. With all this running around, she sometimes doesn’t even get to watch the match and is often texting her mom to check up on the score.
But that is a small sacrifice to make compared to the time away from home. Murray spends up to seven months of the year away from home, on tour with the Springboks.
'It’s a choice and it’s an opportunity to experience the cultures around the world,' she says. 'It’s also something I try and encourage the players to do, especially the young guys who never travelled before. Of course it’s hard, but it’s also a privilege. All jobs are tough and the loneliness has been the toughest for me.'
As a woman working in a male-dominated environment, she admits that it took some time to find her feet. But she is now thriving in the role, and has gained the utmost respect of her peers. Springbok team sponsors Absa has also praised her for the role she plays in the management of the team, and the inspiration she has become to other women seeking a career in the sports industry.
'It took me some time to find my niche and I think I had to do my job better than a man would have. I had to make sure that the attention to details things were done right. But now I don’t get treated any differently, except for changing in a different change room!'
Murray's biggest advantage is her caring and almost motherly approach to looking after the players and she always puts their wellbeing first.
'I’m very nurturing and players can come to me and have a confidant. I can be emphatic to personal problems and being an older woman, I can give them some advice, too. My phone is on 24 hours a day and if the guys call me at three in the morning, then I deal with it then and there.'
From dealing with a player who once invited two girlfriends into the box by accident to dealing with Jean de Villiers’s jokes, Murray has seen it all.
The Bok captain has nothing but praise for her.
'Annelee is such a big part of the Springbok team and I cannot imagine the team without her. She's basically the reason that all the players are always happy. When you need something you ask her and she gets it done, whether it's your wife needing accommodation or us needing visas. Aneelee will assist as far as possible. Her contact and friends list is never ending and the reason for that is that she will always make time for a quick coffee or a bite to eat. How she always fits everything into her busy schedule, I don't know! Some people say that women don't belong in rugby, well the Springboks without Annelee would just not be the same.'
Having made her debut in 2000 when South Africa played Argentina, Murray still gets goosebumps when singing the national anthem. She is somebody anyone who works in rugby knows and has become a real role model to other women aspiring to take up similar roles. She has proven that with passion, hard work and dedication, it is possible for women to make a real difference in sport, even if she herself is amazed that she has lasted in the job so long.
'I didn’t think I would be doing this job for so long. I took the job just a few years after rugby became professional. The job grew and I grew in the job and it’s now such a wonderful privilege to sing the national anthem when the Springboks are on the field and being involved. I still get emotional about these things. As long as you have passion, you can do the job.'
– This article is courtesy of Springbok sponsor Absa
Photo: Duif du Toit/Gallo Images