The only person who remains calm and collected amid all the plaudits flying her way is coach Laurian Johannes herself. Her barrier-breaking appointment as the women’s national Under-20 team coach is the first big stride by SA Rugby on the path to gender parity for women in the sport.
It’s a statement of intent by SA Rugby to appoint Johannes, making her the first woman to manage a South African rugby national team, with women’s rugby at an all-time high globally. An estimated 2.7 million women play the game.
For the first time, the Cape Town Sevens in December will also include a women’s tournament. The Springbok Women’s Sevens team won the Centrale Sevens tournament in Paris in May, going six matches unbeaten. It’s the kind of strides that would please the management of SA Rugby.
The hope is that Johannes will play a guiding hand among the Under-20 players to ensure that South Africa has a deep pool of young talent from which to choose. And no one knows the pool like Johannes, who started coaching at junior level in 2015.
A school teacher by profession, Johannes has gone from being a founding player of the University of the Western Cape women’s rugby team, to playing rugby for her country and making her presence felt among the sport’s male-dominated structures for many years. She was the first woman to reach 50 caps at Western Province, and in the national team she played at prop in the 2010 Rugby Women’s World Cup in England.
The catalyst of the 1995 World Cup
Growing up in Bridgetown, east of the Mother City, the working class home of resilient people in the Cape, had everything to do with Johannes’ rise as a player and her transition to coaching. Her passion for teaching is rooted in her community and built into her sturdy frame. It’s a connection that saw her seek employment as a teacher at Athlone High School where she matriculated.
Like millions of South Africans, Johannes’ “Mandela Moment” happened in 1995, when as a child she watched the Springboks win the World Cup at Ellis Park. It inspired her love for rugby enough to take up the sport at university in 2003, and progress to national level soon after.
“I watched the 1995 Rugby World Cup final at home with my parents and by the end of the match I told them that I wanted to play rugby,” Johannes said in a recent interview.
“My brother played rugby at the time, and my father supported him avidly, but I knew being female it could be different if I were to play the sport. But at that time, there were no options for young girls to play the game, it wasn’t until about 2000 that we got the chance to go out there and show our passion for the game.”
She tricked her parents into believing she had taken up badminton, when in fact she had been playing rugby. One day she invited her father to watch her play “badminton”, and to his pleasant surprise he saw his daughter scrumming down against her opponents. It was a turning point in the Johannes family, who up until then had no idea their daughter was in love with rugby. They’re now her biggest supporters.
“I love rugby and I particularly love scrummaging,” she said. “The serious look in an opposition player’s eyes when you are about to scrum and sometimes the look of fear really drives me, and it is an experience one only gets on a rugby field.”
More women at the helm
Johannes will lead South Africa’s Under-20 team for the first time against Zimbabwe in Harare on Wednesday 26 June, and then three days later in the second match. Those encounters will be the team’s first taste of international rugby in six years. Their last participation in the international arena came in the Nations Cup in 2013 against England, USA and Canada in London. She has already rung the changes by insisting on more practice time
SA Rugby has moved the game forward for women in a sport that has only ever celebrated male prowess in the speed and strength department. Johannes’ appointment is not an isolated event, but the beginning of a journey that seeks to uplift women’s participation and control of the game. Women’s representation on the SA Rugby executive council started subtly in 2016 with the appointment of Ilhaam Groeneweld, director of sport at Stellenbosch University, as the first female executive council member.
On 21 May SA Rugby announced more sweeping changes by its standards. Former Springbok Women’s player, Natasha Hofmeester, will take up the role of Under-20 team manager, while the first Springbok Women’s captain, Nomsebenzi Tsotsobe, was reappointed the Springbok Women’s team manager alongside coach Stanley Raubenheimer.
SA Rugby chief executive, Jurie Roux, was understandably self-congratulatory in announcing the changes. It is a significant step forward for the organisation which only recently produced its first female rugby referee – Aimee Barrett-Theron.
According to SA Rugby, its target for participation among boys and girls has been exceeded. Nearly 190 000 young rugby players have participated in SA Rugby’s Get Into Rugby programme – 79% black African and 20% that under apartheid were classified as “coloured” or who deem themselves as such in the present. The programme included 243 teachers and 327 coaches.
The next generation
About 195 000 youngsters are currently part of the Vuka programmes, and girls’ participation in rugby has seen a spike. In Limpopo, 2 709 girls play rugby, while in the Northern Cape 2 490 girls out of a total of 7 578 participate in the sport across the 14 regions.
In its annual report of 2017, SA Rugby was clear what needed to be done and how it viewed women’s rugby in the global context of women’s sport.
“Women’s sport is a national focus in South Africa and an imperative for World Rugby. Our international governing body is significantly increasing the representation of women within its councils – by statutes – while members are being encouraged to develop their own national 15-a-side women’s programmes with the reward of additional votes at Council level. It therefore remains an important subject area for SA Rugby,” the report says.
For Johannes, this is about taking her journey as both a trailblazer and teacher to the next generation of women rugby players. Her role models, she says, are her aunts, who inspired her with their courage and go-getter mentality.
“It doesn’t matter if you are a man or a woman. A rugby player remains a rugby player. We all love the game, and are passionate about it,” she says.
Johannes is looking to build a foundation that will secure the future of the women’s game in South Africa, where sport is wholly reliant on sponsorships to survive, and the pot is running on empty. SA Rugby’s financial losses are beginning to show signs of recovery over the past financial year, but only a small percentage of it will go to the women’s game.
“There are quite a few female coaches out there in South Africa and I hope now there will be even more,” Johannes said recently. “They can now identify with someone who can coach at this level and that should provide motivation for them to grow their careers.”
As she looks ahead to this month’s matches, Johannes believes playing more international rugby is the best way to improve the standard of women’s rugby. “The more Tests the team plays, the more exposure the players will get. I had the opportunity to work with the players briefly and they realise they are working toward something big. But this opportunity is about more than that.
“These players will feed into the senior national side in the next few years, so this chance to develop their skills and possibly face international opposition is vital in their development as players.”