Springbok Women's rugby on the up, and hope to defy underdog tag at World Cup

It may not yet reflect in the Springbok Women's results, but a seismic cultural shift has taken place within their setup ahead of the Women's Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, which starts on Saturday.

In five years, thanks to a cultural and investment shift, they have gone from a side not even capable of fielding a competitive team to one featuring seasoned professionals with overseas experience in their squad.

The Springbok Women did not even attempt to progress through the 2017 World Cup qualifiers, as the team was in dire straits and in need of a reboot. Rather than sending a makeshift unit, they focused on building a new team from scratch.

A trailblazing generation of players emerged, with prop Babalwa 'Beast' Latsha leading the charge. Having first played rugby in 2014 through the SA Rugby Legends Association's VUKA programme, she became the first South African women's rugby player to turn professional in January 2020, joining Spain's Eibar on a short-term contract.

She was followed overseas by centre Zintle Mpupha, who joined Exeter Chiefs on a one-year deal the following year. In January 2022, second rower Catha Jacobs signed for Saracens.

Although none of those stints overseas lasted long, the Springbok Women are clearly on the up and qualified comfortably this time, with a 39-0 thrashing of Kenya in the decisive fixture.

"Since I started playing rugby, I think a lot of development has happened on the South African front," Latsha, who discovered rugby while studying law in Cape Town, said in Wednesday's press conference.

"We've had a full blast of the Women's Interprovincial Premiership, which aired on SuperSport. We've had the import of someone like [Ireland's] Lynne Cantwell, who is head of high performance for women at SA Rugby."

However, playing abroad also reminded Latsha that there is still work to be done: "If I may compare with my experience abroad, I think the growth spurt overseas is a lot quicker in terms of the development of the sport.

"One must consider the timeframe and how long overseas [women's] teams have been playing -- and how overseas teams have been operating.

"I think here in South Africa, we are definitely on a steady upward path and I think there are pathways now that we've discovered that can help us to further grow and advance the sport a lot more. I think that this World Cup is one of these milestones as well that can catapult us into a stronger pathway going forward."

Mpupha offered a similar perspective of her overseas experiences, saying: "So far, what I've learned in the [English] Premiership most specifically is that it's driven by the players mostly and the passion around the supporters is also more driven by the players.

"The women's players are really leading the women's game, which is something that I think we're lacking a little bit in South Africa.

"That's one thing that I always say to my mates as well: we are the people who are supposed to pick [our] hands up every time there's a coaching clinic [and] every time there's a school that's really interested in rugby... I think that [volunteering] is how the world or the South African [country] is going to know about women in sport or women in rugby."

READ: The Ultimate Women's Rugby World Cup guide

South Africa will kick off this year's Women's World Cup against France on Saturday, with England and Fiji also in their group, Pool C. Their goal is to make the quarter-finals, although that would be a tough ask of a team that was not present at the last World Cup.

The Springbok Women are, however, pulling no punches regarding their gameplan for the opening match against France at Eden Park.

"We're looking to win the territory battle in the first half. Hopefully, it all goes well [and] we'll dominate with the forwards when the time comes," said flyhalf Libbie Janse van Rensburg at the pre-match press conference.

"There's definitely been a buzz this week. It's gameweek, so all game faces have been on since Monday already. I think we're all just looking forward to taking to the field and showing the world what South Africa really can do."