Zintle Mpupha could have become a national cricketer but rugby stole her heart and she left a promising career in cricket to follow her dreams.
Mpupha’s sporting journey began in cricket where she played for Border U19 team at the age of 13 and made national camps with the South African national women’s U19 cricket team.
Her interest in rugby was sparked by two ladies who invited her to train with them after one of her cricket practices. At the time she had no interest in the sport but later joined in for the fun of it.
After enduring tough tackles on the field, Mpupha vouched that she would never take up rugby. Little did she know that the bug had bit!
In 2013, after leaving cricket to focus on a new venture in her sporting career, Mpupha joined the Springbok Women U20s team that toured the United Kingdom and her passion to succeed grew tremendously.
In 2014, she was offered a contract with the national Sevens team, however she decided to focus on her studies and play rugby union at university.
Two years later, Mpupha graduated and was called back to the national team and in 2017 she was selected as captain.
Today, the experienced fly-half hopes to lead her team to a world series competition to put South African women’s rugby on the map.
The Springbok Sevens Women’s Rugby captain says that all the hard work and challenges that they are overcoming will ultimately benefit the women players who will be coming into the sport.
Mpupha says development from grassroots level is another factor that needs to be taken seriously in order to create a pipeline that produces players for the national team.
Speaking with Celine Abrahams, Mpupha chats about her challenges with self-doubt in the earlier stages of her career and the importance of South African female rugby players attracting interest from clubs abroad.
Zintle, pleasure speaking to you! How has your life been over the past few months under Covid-19 lockdown?
Celine, thank you much for talking to me, really appreciate it! My life during this lockdown has changed a little, like everyone else’s has. So many things have been so hard to get used to but also shows that not everything goes according to how we all want it to. Sometimes, somehow, we have got to abide by the rules and all, especially for our health and safety purposes.
How have you managed to keep yourself motivated and to continue training?
Another hard thing I had to face is to train on my own, finding my own motivation alone. Quite hard, especially that I’m used to always being with the team, training together and motivating each other.
But what has motivated me is that I have told myself whenever we get onto that field again, I am not going to be the same player, I am going to be way better than I was before. So, I am kind of using this time to reflect on myself and see all the things I wanted to work on so long ago…now is the time to get them done.
What has been the most difficult part for you?
To be honest, I think I am blessed enough not to have been affected much by this pandemic and I thank God for it every day. Meaning the only thing that was difficult for me was having to train on my own but that’s not what could stop my life because at the end of the day I am still training, and there’s people out there who have lost their jobs and stuff like that…. So, I’m grateful that I haven’t been knocked off by the pandemic and I believe that everything will go back to normal and everyone will have their jobs back.
Tell us about your journey in sports. We know that you started out playing cricket ?
Yeah, I started with cricket as I grew up in a family with a cricket background, so I also was driven and excited just for cricket, which went so well too. I got into the under 19s team at the age of 13, and into Border Senior team the following year and I had been playing for them until 2016. Had national camps and made SA schools a few times. I enjoyed cricket so much as I grew as a player. Also, Mr Koko Godlo is the guy that supported me throughout my cricket career having to see that I had everything I needed and not to feel odd with the other kids.
“After one of my cricket practices, two ladies approached me to join them for their rugby sessions, I wasn’t interested at all, and told them I will never play rugby. But they never stopped asking, and again Mr Godlo was the one who said I must just give it a go, if I don’t like it, I won’t be forced to play it.” – Springbok Women’s Sevens team captain, Zintle Mpupha.
After one of my cricket practices, two ladies approached me to join them for their rugby sessions, I wasn’t interested at all, and told them I will never play rugby. But they never stopped asking, and again Mr Godlo was the one who said I must just give it a go, if I don’t like it, I won’t be forced to play it. So, I went, and they were doing contact that day, worst day of my life…I told them that I am not coming back it’s not my thing. Then they explained it’s not always like that and I won’t be doing contact for a while until I get used to things and I’m going to play scrumhalf which won’t be so much contact at the games.
Long story short, I started enjoying rugby more than cricket, skipped cricket practices for rugby and my passion for rugby really started when I went overseas for the first time ever in my life with the Springbok Women U20s that went to UK in 2013. I realized I can actually make a living out of the sport when I got offered a contract to be with the 7s team the following year, but I was studying and it was a matter of choosing rugby and my studies, which I chose my studies because I need to have something I can lean on after rugby. And then I didn’t get national call ups, just played club and provincial rugby, which was still fun. That is when I could have just left rugby, but I told myself that I’m going to study, work hard to get that contract and I will be part of the 7s team again.
In 2016, I got my degree, and was on form during the 15s season. I went to the 7s tournament in Mpumalanga and that was the turning point for me. The 7s coaches approached me again asking if I’m done with studies because they wanted me back in the system. Since then, November 2016, I have been part of the 7s ladies.
In 2017, I got offered a contract, and moved to Stellenbosch. The next year, I was appointed captain of the team, which came as a surprise but I knew with God having to give me all that I wanted it will somehow be a time where I had to do something for Him too, so for me being captain of the team was God’s way for me to fulfil His purpose through my rugby career, which is to save the lost souls and bring them closer to God.
What was that transition like for you going from cricket to playing rugby?
It wasn’t an easy thing to do at all because rugby required me to be this strong person that spends time at gym and cricket required me to do certain exercises at the gym that are totally different to those we do in rugby. As a result, when it came to rugby with passing and catching, it was not so hard for me because of eye and hand coordination which so important in cricket. But when I got so serious with rugby I had to be at the gym most of the time, obviously doing rugby exercises and then I kind of struggled with batting, my eye and hand coordination wasn’t so sharp anymore. But I was lucky enough that the sport didn’t really have a lot of competition at the time, one is winter sport and the other summer sport, but still, you would see the difference.
Having to move from your hometown in the Eastern Cape to Stellenbosch in Cape Town to honour your contract with the SA women’s national sevens team, how was that in the beginning?
It was a huge move for me as I was never out of the province for that long, but I was kind of already used to be on my own, and not with my family, so it wasn’t so hard that I had to be worried about each and every day.
Start off with everything and being with the team again after a very long time wasn’t easy at all, fitness wise, experience, the level where the rest of the team was as compared to mine, it actually took so long to get into the vibe of the team, also had the thoughts to just quit everything, and go back home because I felt too much pressure. There was a lot to learn and gain to be at the same level with the rest of the team…
“I was crying almost after every session because it didn’t feel like I was ever going to fit in up until I prayed to God to just give me strength to overcome all this and for Him to protect me and help me find my motivation again…” – Mpupha speaks about dealing with challenges in her rugby career.
I was crying almost after every session because it didn’t feel like I was ever going to fit in up until I prayed to God to just give me strength to overcome all this and for Him to protect me and help me find my motivation again… Like He always does, He helped me, things started to change, I got used to things and was vibing with the team the way I needed to.
What were some of the challenges that you had to overcome during those early stages?
Self-confidence is the most thing I struggled with, doubting myself in most of the things I was doing, getting used to training more than twice a day, adapting to a totally different team culture and getting used to the coach’s tone when he talks/shout in the field.
How has it all helped you in becoming that person and player that you are today?
That all has helped me into the person and player that I am today, because when I got used to things I was getting more comfortable and had confidence in myself again, also stopped doubting myself by reminding myself that this has always been a dream, now I am living my dream. That’s when confidence became better and stronger. So much that I will always lend a helping hand to any new player that comes into the system because I know how hard it is, and wouldn’t want any other person to feel like they’re not worth being here because of how hard it is to get used to things.
What have been your biggest highlights of your career so far?
Firstly, getting my 7s debut in 2014 in Amsterdam and scoring a tri in that game. Later, coming back to the 7s system. Also, getting my debut for the Springbok Women’s 15s team in 2018, going to the 7s World Cup, going to the Commonwealth Games and playing in front of our home crowd at the Cape Town 7s was the best feeling ever!
When you look at the state of women’s rugby in South Africa, what are your honest views?
My honest views looking at the state is that from what it has been, from the start to where I am now, it has changed for the better. I know we are not where we want to be yet, but great things take time. Patience, hard work and sacrifices is how we going to get to where we want to be. I always say, what we are doing now isn’t for us, we can have all the hard times, struggles but we are going to overcome them for the next generation.
The state of women’s rugby is in our hands to better it into what we want it to look like, we as rugby players as whole in South Africa should be aware and know that it is all in our hands, we are the ones capable of changing women’s rugby in South Africa.
What are some of the things that you think we need to work on to improve for the future?
Development! Have more young teams that you look after, we have YTC for young girls under 16 and 18 and recently had under 20s team too, which only played in Zimbabwe.
What we need is the kind of development that will produce players who will fit into the senior set-ups smoothly. Currently there’s a huge gap between the players coming from YTC’s and players in the national set-up; skill wise, and physique.
If we could have a great basement where all the young girls are taught the skills, trained to look like athletes and be ready for whenever they get a call-up into the senior teams and then we will be getting somewhere…
Our female rugby players are beginning to earn lucrative contracts overseas, what does that say to you about what the other countries see in our players?
This is a great thing to see and I believe it opens doors for so many other talented girls in South Africa. For other countries to see that there’s quality players in South Africa, players that can boost their teams is heart-warming. Also, it tells me that South African women’s rugby players are going to go far! We are talented and capable to produce world class players.
Which sportswomen inspire you and why?
Mandisa Williams, the ex-Springbok captain. She has also played a huge role in my rugby career and I always looked up to her. I had a chance to play next to her in quite a lot of games at Border…what an inspiring woman to play with! She would talk to me, guide me in making good decisions in my career. Also, what she does for women’s rugby in the Border region is amazing.
What are you still hoping to achieve in your career?
Most important thing I want to achieve in my career is to get the team into the world series, so that the next generation can be known, so that South African women’s rugby can be recognized and have our flag on the map.
Photo 1 Caption: Zintle Mpupha believes that the state of women’s rugby in South Africa for the future generation lies in the hands of the current crop to change the face of the game. Photo: Supplied
Photo 2 Caption: The Springbok Sevens Women’s Rugby captain says that all the hard work and challenges that they are overcoming will ultimately benefit the female players who will be coming into the sport. Photo: Supplied
Photo 3 Caption: Mpupha emphasises that development from grassroots level is another factor that needs to be taken seriously in order to create a pipeline to produce players for the national team. Photo: Supplied
Photo 4 Caption: With more than 7-years’ experience playing rugby, Mpupha’s sporting journey began in cricket where she played for Border’s U19 team at the age of 13 and made national camps with the South Africa national women’s U19 cricket team. Photo: Supplied