Maties women transforming SA rugby

Taking a leaf out of their male counterparts’ book, Maties Women’s Rugby team won the inaugural Women’s Varsity Cup and is well on the way to cementing women’s place in the sport.

The first-ever Women’s Varsity Cup champions celebrate their victory at the UWC Sports Stadium on 13 April 2023. Photo by Nasief Manie.

SINCE BEING FOUNDED in 1908, Stellenbosch University’s Maties Rugby club has had a long and proud history. From producing Springboks to dominating the annual Varsity Cup competition, the success of Maties Rugby is grounded largely in its efforts to promote transformation in South African rugby.

While the success and aspirations of Maties Rugby have been implemented by a strong culture built originally by men, the club’s culture is transforming and evolving into one of inclusivity and equality. This was proven by the Maties Women’s Rugby team when it lifted the trophy of the first-ever Women’s Varsity Cup championship – making history and creating a future for South African women’s rugby.

“The vision of Maties Rugby is to be the best university rugby club in the world,” says Drikus Hancke, head of Maties Rugby. “While this in itself is ambitious, we want to push for high standards in everything we do.”

Bianca Augustyn, captain of the Maties Women’s Rugby team, followed closely by team mate Lara Schats. Photo by Nasief Manie.

These high standards have been within reach since the Varsity Cup competition was founded in 2008, with Maties Rugby having a 78% winning record in the competition – the best in Varsity Cup history. Although they have a record of five wins, their most recent in 2019, this year’s season has been a challenging one for the Maties Men’s Rugby team.

“It’s definitely been a season of highs and lows,” says Gift Dlamini, 2023’s captain of the men’s team. “But I think we showed a lot of fight.” After having lost 10–19 against Potchefstroom University’s FNB NWU Eagles in the semi-finals, Maties ended in overall fourth position in the 2023 Varsity Cup competition. It may not have been the outcome they were working towards, but the past season was still one of growth and persistence.

“This season’s highlights were the way the players kept fighting in matches that were tough and close encounters, as well as the growth in a lot of players,” says Drikus. “We are busy with a review [of our game play this past season] and will plan after that – we believe in following a thorough process.”

Maties players Janke Oosthuizen, Danelle van Zyl, Elitha Sylvester and Blaine Apollos (left to right) played with power and skill during the Varsity Cup Finals. Photo by Nasief Manie.

For Maties Rugby, every season starts with the goal of winning the Varsity Cup, and although it was out of reach for the men’s team this season, the Maties Women’s Rugby team picked up the torch and kept it burning by winning the first-ever Women’s Varsity Cup championship with a 63–9 victory against University of Johannesburg (UJ) in the final.

“It still feels unreal and I think it needs to sink in that our names are going down in history as the team who won the first Women’s Varsity Cup,” says Bianca Augustyn, 2023’s captain of the Maties Women’s Rugby team. “Lifting that trophy was a very special moment and I wouldn’t have picked another group to do it with.”

Having been able to compete in, let alone win, the first Women’s Varsity Cup was a privilege for the women’s group, shares Johann Zeier, head coach of the Maties Women’s Rugby team. “It’s always exciting being part of the first of anything. For our women’s team, seeing the men play every season and not having a similar competition is behind us,” he adds proudly.

The agony (and ecstasy) – of being a sports fan.

Maties Women’s Rugby was founded in 2005 and has established itself as one of the top women’s rugby teams in the country with a strong record of success. The team is committed to promoting gender equality in rugby and has been at the forefront of efforts to raise the profile of women’s rugby in South Africa, especially at the student level.

Having won the first Women’s Varsity Cup will certainly change the way people view the women’s team in the Maties Rugby club, as it is now going through the same battles as all the other teams. This change in perspective can only be fostered if the numbers continue to grow, says Bianca, who encourages women keen on rugby to try out the sport.

“Rugby makes me feel empowered and strong, and it really is a sport for any shape and size,” she says.

Bianca Augustyn with the ball at the Women’s Varsity Cup final. Photo by Nasief Manie.

In addition, Bianca believes her team’s win will have a huge impact on the growth and development of women’s rugby in South Africa as time passes and more teams get involved. “We laid out a pretty decent foundation this year, so from here we build going forward and it can only get better,” she says.

“The Maties Rugby [men’s team] has always been at the forefront of student rugby globally. If we can achieve a similar space for women’s rugby in South Africa and eventually have the same recognition all over the world, then I think we are heading in the right direction,” says Johann.

Maties fans during the 2023 Varsity Cup match between Maties and UCT at the Danie Craven Stadium.

The Maties Women’s Rugby team’s commitment to excellence, both on and off the field, has earned them widespread admiration and respect. With a bright future ahead, Maties Women’s Rugby is sure to continue to make waves in the world of women’s rugby in South Africa and beyond.

“It’s important to have dreams and visions of how far something can go. We need to take a lot of small steps, but with time I believe it’s possible,” says Johann. V