Zintle Mpupha, 28, didn’t know what she was signing up for, but her yes was emphatic nevertheless when presented with the opportunity of playing professional rugby. “It was always a dream to go and play overseas,” said Mpupha, captain of the women’s national Sevens rugby team and South Africa’s first woman to feature in the Allianz Premier 15s in England. “It didn’t matter where it was … When it finally happened, I jumped at the opportunity.
“I didn’t know anything about Exeter Chiefs. I didn’t know anything about the Allianz Premiership. And I said yes without even having to look into it. It was so crazy that I’d be ticking another box in my career. Yes, it took so long, but it’s always my plans but God’s timing.”
The multitalented athlete, who was born in Ixesi (Middledrift) in the Eastern Cape, was always destined to make it big. She played cricket and rugby for Border, but rugby won the fight for her affection. She moved to Stellenbosch to play for the national Sevens team and eventually become only the second South African woman after Springbok captain Babalwa Latsha, who joined a Spanish side, to sign a professional contract. Mpupha plays for the Sevens and 15-women teams.
“I was really honoured to be the first player in my country to play in the Premier 15s league, and I hope my move will change a lot of young rugby players’ minds into thinking of the broader opportunities. The welcoming was so warm and I felt appreciated for coming there. A lot of names to remember, though,” she laughs. “It took me a little while to remember everyone’s names.
“Chiefs is a very nice club filled with all the different players from different countries and the culture is good too. It’s a very diverse team. The culture is a bit different for me, though, and we play a different kind of rugby too to what I am used to. I’d say it’s different to our style of play. It’s a mixture of being tactical and physical. At the same time, this side and back at home would be regarded as very physical teams.”
Right place at the right time
The move to Europe came at the right time for Mpupha, with Stanley Raubenheimer’s Springboks making their maiden appearance at the Rugby World Cup. The tournament was scheduled for 2021, but Covid-19 pushed it out to later this year.
There will be plenty of big moments for Mpupha as South Africa will host the eighth edition of the Rugby World Cup Sevens in Cape Town this year. It will be the first time this tournament is hosted in Africa and features the best 24 men’s and 16 women’s rugby Sevens teams.
Mpupha has played seven Tests for the Springboks since making her debut in 2018. She knew she needed more game time to stay fit ahead of the World Cup and Rugby World Cup Sevens. Recently she was called up by Sevens coach Paul Delport for his squad in Toulouse for the France Sevens.
“It is lovely to be with the girls again. It’s always great to just see people you haven’t seen in a while. I am super excited to play with the ladies once again,” said Mpumpa.
“When a call came to play for Chiefs, I never hesitated. It was an easy decision for me to make. That was also one of the reasons I agreed to play for Chiefs – to get more game time and learn as much as I could for the World Cup. I am very excited about it, but this means hard work still needs to be put in for me to be selected first. Otherwise I am ready and more than just excited.”
‘Up for the challenge’
A new crop of young players is coming up through the junior ranks to debut for the 15-women team, so the experience of players such as Mpupha will come in handy.
Mpupha says South Africa is full of potential and will be a big threat on the world stage. “A lot of work has been put in. I am confident enough to say that the World Cup is the stage we want to play in, against the best in the world, which will show where we are. As a team we are ready and up for the challenge.
“I would love to still be involved in our system. l still believe if we have people who have walked the path before in certain positions it would make the lives and careers of future Boks much easier. So I am looking into being the team biokineticist one day, and I believe we have never had a female one before,” said Mpupha, who studied human movement sciences.
“A lot of people had a huge impact on my rugby career. It’s a very long list of names, whether it was on the field or off the field. But I really am grateful that I was brought up in the Eastern Cape, where I’ve learnt everything about rugby and the province itself is known as the source of Springboks and Springbok women.”