Laurian Johannes insists she is “in it to win it” as she ponders life as the first female head coach of a South African national team.
Johannes was confirmed as the new South Africa Women’s U20 coach last week having spent the past four years working within Western Province’s age-grade structures.
Her first task in the historic role will be to select a squad for back-to-back games against Zimbabwe at the end of June.
Those fixtures will be the first fulfilled by a Springbok Women’s U20 side since the 2013 Nations Cup in England, a tournament in which South Africa narrowly beat the hosts before losing heavily to the USA and Canada.
Despite the U20 side’s time away from the international stage, Johannes – who has witnessed her players’ development first-hand as Western Province U18 coach – is confident of their potential as she attempts to provide a stepping stone between age-grade rugby and the senior national team.
“We’re all systems go,” she said. “We have a group of girls that are very excited to be playing internationals again. The squad is moving in the right direction.
“The group of girls we have, they’re very talented.
Inspiring the next generation
“There’s a lot that we’ve already earmarked basically for international rugby on a senior level but for now they are with us, and we are grooming them and trying to get them as fit as we can for international rugby, for when they are called up to the senior team.”
Johannes was still a fully paid-up member of the front row union the last time a South Africa Women’s U20 team took to the field.
The prop, who represented her country at Women’s Rugby World Cup 2010, was a fixture for Western Province and less than a year away from becoming the most-capped provincial player in South Africa.
She will be joined in her new role by her former Western Province team-mate Natasha Hofmeester, who has been appointed team manager. It means the young South Africans will not have far to look for proof of what can be achieved.
“Definitely, I’m hoping to inspire them with regards to working hard because it wasn’t easy to just become the most-capped player in our union because we played very little games per year,” Johannes said.
“So, it took me quite a while to get there but that was purely through hard work and dedication and passion for what I love doing.
“So I’m hoping to instil those values and morals in my team to persevere and do the best that they can.”
Hofmeester and Johannes are “good buddies” away from the rugby pitch, which the latter hopes will stand them in good stead as they begin working together.
“Natasha and I are friends, so we get along super and we share such a lot of information with regards to rugby.
“And it’s so awesome to be coaching at this level with Natasha because we just feed off each other.
“We’ve played provincial level together and now we’re back together internationally.”
Match fitness has already been identified as the main area where gains will need to be made if Johannes’ side are to compete on the global stage.
By her own admission it will take a lot of hard work to get the team to where she wants it to be but Johannes is no stranger to a little tough graft.
Like many of her generation she was seduced by rugby union during Rugby World Cup 1995, and having watched Francois Pienaar hoist the Webb Ellis Cup, she says, “I told my parents ‘I want to do that’.”
However, it was not until she enrolled at the University of the Western Cape that the opportunity to do so presented itself. Although even then, it wasn’t straightforward.
“I kind of told a bit of a lie to my dad, to my family in order for them to get me rugby boots,” Johannes explained.
“I told them I was playing badminton and then I got them to buy a pair of boots for a ‘friend’ I didn’t have, but [they were] actually for me.
“And then I invited him to the ‘badminton’ game but it was actually a rugby game and he saw me on the field and he’s been my number one supporter ever since.”
Johannes admits that her father “was a bit angry for the first 10 seconds” but recognising the passion his daughter had for the game he quickly came around to the idea.
He has had a lot to cheer in the intervening decade and a half too. Johannes ranks her 50th cap alongside her appearance at Women’s Rugby World Cup 2010 as her proudest achievements in the game.
Of the tournament in England, she said: “It was a fantastic experience because I got to rub shoulders with the best in the business in the women’s game.
Aiming for the top
“We played against New Zealand and Australia and Wales, and it was an awesome, awesome experience.”
Since hanging up her boots in 2014, Johannes has balanced her day-to-day job as a school teacher with her quest to become the head coach of the South Africa Women’s senior team.
“It was definitely always one of my ambitions because I always wanted to give back to the game that I love so passionately,” she said.
“Yeah, it was always going to be coaching. I was always going to coach after playing. That was always the dream.
“My goals and my dreams are to be the coach of the national team, the national senior team. That is something that I’ll really strive and work hard towards.
“I’m not afraid of working hard so I would really love to be the coach of the national team one day.”
But for now, Johannes will strive to help as many players tread that same path between the U20 side and the senior national team.
Photos: SA Rugby