Former Ireland Women’s captain, Lynne Cantwell, stepped into the role of SA Rugby High Performance Manager for Women’s rugby in January, and only seven months down the line she has already started reshaping the women’s game in South Africa.
Holding a degree in Sports and Exercise Science from the University of Limerick in Ireland and a Masters in Physiotherapy from Southampton University in England, the former outside centre, who amassed 86 Test caps for Ireland, brings vast experience and expertise to the women’s game on the African continent.
Given her hands-on approach in leadership and her commitment to seeing women’s rugby earn its rightful place in South Africa, Cantwell is Rugby Africa’s Women in Leadership for July.
- Tell us about your role as SA Rugby’s High Performance Manager for Women’s Rugby, and what does it entail?
The role of women’s HP manager in SA was designed to have a performance focus of the game. This means that one of the main objectives of the role is to drive performances in the national 7s, 15s and eventually U20s side.
However, in order to approach the role in a sustainable way, we must have a strong focus on the development of the game and truly position the women’s game in the local and provincial community as a game that is accessible and welcoming to young girls and women.
One further focus of the role is to increase the opportunities for women in rugby as coaches, referees, administrators etc. As we progress the representation of both males and females in the game, we will create a future in the game that reflects society best.
- What appealed to you most about taking up this position?
I am passionate about rugby as a sport and its ability to transform lives. As I have grown older, I have become increasingly connected to the growth in the women’s game. I have a better understanding of what’s possible for female sport which makes me incredibly excited about the growth opportunities but also because I have seen and experienced many of the challenges that slowed down progress in the game and I feel passionate about helping remove these.
I was impressed by South Africa’s will to make a change in the women’s game and the leadership shown by Rassie Erasmus, Charles Wessels and Jurie Roux to notice that we need to look beyond the men’s game to find the best approach for the women’s game. Although both games have many similarities, there are many defining differences in the women’s game that need to be understood for it to grow and develop.
The hope is by approaching development of the game through this lens, we will give the women’s game hope of meaningful growth into the future.
- What are the main changes you have triggered in women’s rugby since stepping into the position?
I started the role in January 2021 and received a warm welcome by the rugby community in SA. There have been a lot of doors opened in the game, and my main job of work has been trying to match the demands of openness for progress.
Although at the time the RWC21 campaign preparations were in full flow and therefore took a big focus, the broader body of work at hand regarding how we approach progress in the whole game took a lot of thought.
My biggest priority early on was to meet as many people as I could to get their sense of what was happening in the game on the ground. Early on we formed a Women’s Advisory Committee tasked with reviewing and adjusting the Women’s Rugby Strategy to set the course for the women’s game..
We have been working closely with the Provincial Teams to help introduce performance environment principles in the provincial regions.
- Given your experience as a player and administrator in women’s rugby, how important is sponsorships and media coverage in boosting the profile and exposure of the women’s game?
A recent report published by FIFA directly correlated sponsorship with growth in women’s sport. Because women’s sport is still at a stage where it can be seen to be competition for coverage with men’s sport, there will be an element for a while that It will continue to receive the lesser share. Sponsorship is a core funding stream that enables women’s rugby to get the investment it needs to grow.
There is a growing bank of evidence to support that sponsors are increasingly looking to invest in sports that are authentic and purpose-lead. Women’s sport has been highlighted as doing just that. By virtue of the fact that most women’s rugby players are not media trained or polished, it creates a culture where girls and women are honest about their stories and backgrounds in interviews which consumers and brands can relate to and want to connect with.
Media Coverage goes without saying as essential to boost profile and exposure of the game. ‘If you can’t see, you can’t be’ is a saying used and a strapline used in a visibility campaign in Ireland since 2018 to shine a light on the poor media coverage of women’s sport. Having role models to aspire to for kids is essential in them shaping what direction they want to go or what they think is possible. Media is the prime platform to gain this exposure and it is the prime platform where young kids get their information these days.
So, both of these factors are essential in the growth of the women’s game.
- What are your objectives for women’s rugby in South Africa for the next five years?
We are in the process of redesigning our women’s rugby strategy through which we will define our objectives more clearly. However, the core focuses of our approach will resonate similar to World Rugby’s with:
- Leadership on and off the pitch
- Sustainable and Integrated participation in safe environments
- Quality competitions along a development pathway
- Visibility and Engagement
- Investment Partners
- What are your hopes and aspirations for women’s rugby in South Africa and on the African continent in the years to come?
We are trying to approach the work we do in South Africa through the lens of ‘creating opportunities through rugby where women and girls can reimagine what is possible’.
We want to position the game so that girls and women see rugby as a game where they can go to be safe, valued and welcome, and a place where they are encouraged to learn and grow as people and as players.
As I learn more about the continent of Africa, I think these principles will apply to so many emerging nations in the game considering a big focus of our approach must be reimagining what’s possible for the game of rugby through a women’s and girls’ lens.
I think competitions are such a core component of how we improve in the game but also where players gain their most enjoyment in the game. And if the African countries can support each other’s growth, they position themselves so well to drive each other’s performance through more regular competitions.
But fundamentally, I see sport and especially rugby as an incredible teacher, where young girls and woman can learn their strengths and value, learn how to grow confidence in who they are and who they can be, and learn the value of different people and cultures….all through playing a simple game!! Girls and women in Africa will gain so much from finding rugby and it’s our job as administrators to make the game safe and accessible to those who are looking for that.
- Tell us a little more about yourself and your journey in rugby?
I was a sprinter as a kid and ran up until I was 18 years old. I started rugby in university in Limerick, Munster, when the game was very young and it was easy to stand out as a fast player.
I was very lucky to have excellent coaches early on who accelerated my learning of the game and hooked me into the life longer learnings of rugby.
I played rugby then for Ireland for 13 years. We lost every game for 6 years in the Six Nations before beating one team at a time over a period of 5 years. Eventually we won the Six Nations Grand Slam in 2013, before going on get to the semi-final of the Rugby World Cup in 2014, beating New Zealand on the way. I played Sevens with Ireland from 2012 and we qualified for the World Series in 2013 after placing 6th in the Moscow World Cup.
I retired in 2014 and focused on my career. I have a daughter and son now and we are all looking forward to the adventure in South Africa over the next few years.
- What advice would you give players who want to make their mark in the game and women who aspire to take up leadership positions in rugby?
I think you need to connect with what you love about the game, what you get from the game, why you play the game. This will be your eternal guide for what you want the game to look like in the future, which will keep you inspired to keep pushing. Women’s sport and women’s rugby is in an incredible area of opportunity and change, but it is very tough as there is a lot of resistance to progress from many angles that lie amongst lots of great will for progress. It’s certainly not an easy ride but it’s incredibly rewarding when you see 15 and 16 year old girls who play the game with smoking hot skills and reflect the amazing future of the game. Most of the future growth in the game is in the women’s game, which will see it continue to take off over the coming years. It’s very satisfying to be contributing to something that can make such a difference in girls and women’s lives and that can give people such joy.