Flying the flag for women’s rugby: Babalwa Latsha, the first African women’s player to go professional

Springbok women’s captain Babalwa Latsha made history when she became the first African women’s rugby player to turn professional in January 2020. Here she shares her rugby journey and hopes for the growth and development of the women’s game.

Babalwa Latsha’s may not yet be halfway through her rugby career at 26 years old, but she’s no doubt already had a stellar one. Awarded South Africa Rugby Women's Top Achiever in 2017, the prop has captained her country since 2019.

In 2020, after becoming the first African women’s rugby player to turn professional upon joining Spain’s Eibar Rugby Taldea in January, Latsha would go on to score 13 tries in seven games for her new team – receiving a renewed contract in the process.

Here she speaks to World Rugby about her journey to date.

An inspirational journey begins

Reflecting on her decision to start playing rugby, Latsha, who was born in the township of Khayelitsha in Cape Town, started playing the game out of curiosity and soon fell in love with its culture and passion – making lasting friendships along the way.

“Playing rugby was never a deliberate decision of mine, it was by chance,” Latsha states. “Two ladies approached me asking me to join their team, I was curious and decided to join them. That’s how I started.

“What made me play the sport a lot longer than I thought was that I found a newfound sense of belonging. I found an instant connection with the ladies that I played with and within the team structure. I then decided to take up the sport seriously.”

Fighting through criticism and gender stereotypes

Latsha says that she had to overcome gender stereotypes and criticism throughout her rugby career for playing a male-dominated sport.

“When you are different, a lot more muscular than average, you play a male dominated sport – which is not too attractive to the average person – you become prone to a lot of criticism, sometimes insults, and even being ostracised. You carry yourself in a particular way; your physique presents itself in a particular way.

“I’ve had to develop a thick skin in terms of not paying much attention to the negativity that comes with being a female rugby player. But we push through because of the passion and impact of the sport on my life.”

Latsha added that another challenge during her rugby career has been to balance her studies while playing rugby.

“I remember we went on a tour and I had to bring my textbooks with me. To try and manage training and studying to come back and write a final exam was quite taxing.”

Policy driven approach needed to develop women’s rugby

Latsha joined the inaugural South African Rugby Legends Association's (SARLA) development programme in 2014. She wants women’s rugby to develop around the world and believes a policy driven approach, focusing on grassroots rugby and empowering women in the sport, is required in order to achieve this goal.

“We need to have policies in place that speaks directly to the development and growth of women’s rugby; we need women to occupy spaces that are conducive of them being in positions to influence policies for the growth and development of women’s rugby.

“We need to design policies for the growth of women’s rugby across the world.”

Latsha hopes that her journey from the township to rugby stardom will leave a legacy to inspire future generations of African women to pursue professional rugby.

“Nothing is impossible, it has been done. That means it’s possible if one person can do it then definitely the next person can, the next generation can.”

A message for women rugby players

Latsha has words of inspiration for women rugby players around the world looking to follow in her footsteps: follow your passion and work hard.  

“I believe with all of my heart that within every women’s rugby player there is a giant sleeping, just waiting to be awakened, just waiting to be brought to life.

“We all have fire within us and I encourage future women’s rugby players – do not be afraid to use the power that you have, be fearless in tapping into that power.”

An eye on Rugby World Cup 2021

Latsha captained the Springbok women's team to qualify for Rugby World Cup 2021. She now has her sights firmly set on the global spectacle.

“My goals for the near future are to represent my nation at the Rugby World Cup, hopefully to lead the charges. Also to continue to ply my trade abroad. The world is our oyster.”

Aside from rugby, Latsha graduated with a law degree from the University of the Western Cape in 2018, paving the road for a bright future on and off the field for African rugby’s golden girl. 

Read more: Italy great Alessandro Zanni reflects on 15 years at the top of international rugby >>

Last updated: Jul 31, 2020, 5:07:21 PM
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