Just over a year ago, not many people outside South Africa’s rugby circles would have heard of Babalwa Latsha. That changed considerably in January 2020, when the law graduate from Khayelitsha made history as South Africa – and Africa’s – first professional Women’s rugby player.
Since then, she has been racking up the accolades – and inspiring a new generation of potential players as a Rugby Africa #Unstoppable Ambassador.
“My journey in rugby has been quite an explosive and inspirational one,” admits Latsha, who was introduced to the sport at university and “never looked back”. “The sport offered some kind of a refuge to me, and I hope that women’s rugby becomes a refuge for many young women, opening up lifechanging opportunities, coupled with sound education. I’d like to see women’s rugby, especially in Africa, grow in leaps and bounds, and become a massive global force.”
This unwavering passion for rugby, and Latsha’s keenness to share it, led to her selection as one of only 12 women on the continent to be recognised by Rugby Africa as an unstoppable force in promoting and developing the game amongst her peers.
“She is a true ambassador, dedicated to the sport and determined to set an example on the world stage. Not only has she boosted the profile of Women’s Rugby in her home country and on the continent, she is also unwavering in her determination to pass on the baton, and attract more professional clubs to Women’s Rugby in South Africa, and on the continent,” enthuses Coralie van Den Berg, General Manager, Rugby Africa.
A pioneer for progress/beyond the norm
Latsha’s athletic physique makes her an ideal fit for the physically demanding sport – but also contributed to the criticisms levelled at her. “This is particularly common for women in male-dominated sports; I have been, and still am, criticized for my muscular physique, the way I carry myself as a female athlete and my strong physical presence,” she reveals. “My existence questions many norms and standards perceived to be for women. To me, those criticisms serve as motivation to change the ‘norm’ and create new standards by constantly working towards breaking new grounds.”
Latsha started breaking this new ground purely by chance. A born athlete who had played football and participated in athletic field events, she was studying towards her LLB degree at the University of the Western Cape in 2014 when she was asked to join the UWC Sevens rugby team for an upcoming tournament. Her trajectory in the sport since then has been, aptly, described as meteoric: by the time she graduated in 2018, she had captained her country to qualify for the 2021 Women’s Rugby World Cup.
“Her incredible leadership skills, coupled with her prowess on the field, came to the fore during her Test debut with the Springboks Women on their UK Tour in 2018,” recalls Maha Zaoui, Women’s Manager, Rugby Africa. “This made her a natural fit as skipper for the Rugby Africa Women’s Cup in 2019, and Latsha proved it by leading the Springbok women’s team to qualify for Rugby World Cup 2021.”
Unstoppable as both player and advocate for the sport, Latsha’s career has been on an upward trajectory since she entered the world stage. Her performance in the Springbok Women’s Test against Spain led to her being snapped up by Spanish club SD Eibar Femenino – and raising the bar for Women’s 15-a-side rugby players on the continent, where it is still an amateur sport.
“I had always had the dream of playing rugby abroad, and worked towards that – but I had no idea that it would happen so soon. To me, it was clear proof that nothing is impossible. Now, the door for African women rugby players is open,” pronounces Latsha proudly.
Recognition, too, has been coming hard and fast: Latsha headlined the 2020 Momentum gsport awards as a triple finalist, featuring in the categories for the Momentum Athlete of the year, Woman of the Year and the newly launched Global Woman in Sport category.
In early February 2021, she was co-opted as a member of the Rugby Africa’s sub-committee for Player Welfare and Participation, which falls under the organization’s broader Women’s Rugby Advisory Committee (WRAC). This new commission focuses on governance and leadership, competitions, player welfare, development and retention to meet strategic goals for women’s rugby across Africa.
“Since making history I have dedicated my efforts to being a good ambassador for women’s rugby and being actively involved in the development of women’s rugby. I aim to constantly be an inspiration and make positive impacts in the spaces I occupy,” she affirms.
The Spring prop says she is now focused on making her mark “on the grandest stage of all.”
“The prospect of competing in a World Cup is thrilling; it is a once in a lifetime opportunity. There has been major changes to my routine as I am currently in camp with the Springbok Women’s team as until March, as we prepare for the 2021 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand from 18 September to 16 October – and the preparations for it are unlike any other competition.”