• Bok Women want to raise their game

    The Springbok Women are determined to improve on their 10th-placed finish at the 2010 World Cup, when the 2014 edition kicks off on Friday. RORY KEOHANE reports.

    Former Springbok prop Lawrence Sephaka has selected the most experienced Springbok Women’s World Cup squad ever, ahead of this year’s tournament in France from 1-17 August.

    Eleven members have been to the global showpiece before, including four – Mandisa Williams (No 8), Lamla Momoti (flank), Cebisa Kula (prop) and Fundiswa Plaatjie (scrumhalf) – who were at the 2006 and 2010 tournaments in Canada and England respectively.

    However, Williams, the Bok Women’s captain since 2008, believes the balance between youth and experience is their greatest asset.

    ‘The younger players are feeding off the others’ experience and showing their potential,’ she says. ‘There is greater expectation on the squad this year and we’re working hard to lift our game.’

    The inclusion of seven of the Springbok Women’s Sevens elite squad has further bolstered the side, particularly the backline.

    ‘Their conditioning has forced the other players to pick up their pace in order to reach the standard they are setting,’ says Sephaka. ‘Renfred Dazel [the sevens coach who is also Sephaka’s assistant] deserves a lot of credit.’

    The sevens players are also setting the standard off the pitch. This year, Dazel’s elite squad – part of a residential high-performance programme operating out of Port Elizabeth – became the first South African female players to be awarded official Saru contracts, a watershed moment for the sport.

    Provincial players – those who take part in the interprovincial women’s competition – claim match fees and transport costs but are still otherwise employed. So too are the remainder of the Bok Women; teachers, administrators, fitness trainers, even firefighters can be counted among their ranks.

    ‘It is a battle,’ says Williams. ‘We get compared to people who compete professionally, where the focus is strictly on rugby and nothing else.’

    While Saru has been working hard to secure funding for the national women’s team, it is improvement in the side’s on-field performances that will speak loudest.

    ‘With women’s rugby in South Africa being only 10 years old, we are aware that we cannot expect miracles,’ said Saru CEO Jurie Roux. ‘However, we would like to see the team improve on its past performances.’

    Tenth in 2010 was an improvement on the Bok Women’s last-place finish in 2006, when they lost 36-0 to Kazakhstan in the 11th-place play-off. They also claimed a record 63-3 win over Uganda in last September’s World Cup qualifier and recently beat the Nomads invitational team 20-5 and 32-24 in London. That, though, was followed by a 46-8 loss to France in Marcoussis.

    ‘After 2010 it was clear we needed to raise our intensity,’ says Williams. ‘The local competition has improved, but international opposition – their physicality most of all – is another step up. We’re working hard, particularly on the set piece and balancing individual outcomes with the overall game plan.’

    Sephaka has had ample time to develop his plan, having been involved with the women’s national team for three years as a consultant before his confirmation as head coach earlier this year. In the past few months, conditioning has been key.

    ‘We’ve been testing their limits,’ says Sephaka. ‘We are expecting them to reach an international standard so the intensity in France won’t come as a surprise.’

    Surprise or not, progression from their pool presents a daunting task. A repeat of their 15-10 win over Wales in the pool stage of the 2010 World Cup would help, but they’d first have to topple either Australia or France – third and fourth-place finishers at the last tournament respectively – for a realistic chance of progressing.

    ‘We are in a tough group,’ admits Sephaka, ‘but we’ll be competitive and have a good chance of progressing if we execute our plans. We’re not overcomplicating things. We have simple strategies that must be done with conviction.’

    There is no shortage of conviction in his squad, who – with the exception of the Bok Women Sevens elite – are in reality part-time players.

    ‘We get one chance against each of these teams,’ says Williams. ‘We’re determined to make the most of it.’

    SPRINGBOK WOMEN POOL FIXTURES
    1 August vs Australia
    5 August vs France
    9 August vs Wales

    PREVIOUS WOMEN'S WORLD CUP FINALS
    1991: United States 19 England 6
    1994: England 38 United States 23
    1998: New Zealand 44 United States 12
    2002: New Zealand 19 England 9
    2006: New Zealand 25 England 17
    2010: New Zealand 13 England 10

    – This article first appeared in the August 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine

    Photo: Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images