South Africa rugby star Zenay Jordaan: “Never think you are better than anyone else"

The fly-half gave up a dream career as a firefighter to become one of the first South African women to receive a pro contact from her country’s Rugby Union.
By Evelyn Watta

Zenay Jordaan has never forgotten where she's come from.

The South African used to secretly leave home to train and play rugby with the boys on the streets, without her parents’ knowledge.

Jordaan, the only girl who played the sport at her primary school, seemed destined to fly. She was enthusiastic to pursue a passion ignited by her father, a former provincial rugby star. It has paid off.

“My dad used to wake me up at 3 am to watch a rugby game,” she told the Olympic Channel from her home in the Middelburg, Eastern Cape.

“When I realised I had fallen in love with rugby was when I would sneak out of the window to go play and train with the boys because I was so eager to try the moves I had seen in TV.”

At only 29, she has featured in two Rugby World Cups and three Rugby World Cup Sevens and is now preparing for her sixth tournament – the fifteen-a-side World Cup that will be held in New Zealand in 2021. A huge achievement in a career that has spanned 15 years.

She’s arguably the greatest female rugby union player in South African history, but the Springbok is humbled by her achievements.

“I would never think that I'm one of the best players. I know the work that I have put in or what it took for me to get there.” - Zenay Jordaan to Olympic Channel

The Olympic Channel spoke to the green and gold fly-half exclusively about her journey to success, her dreams for her sixth world cup event, and the disappointment of not being able to play at the biggest stage - The Olympics.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Zenay Jordaan in action against Kenya during the 2019 Rugby Africa Women's World Cup qualifier match.

‘I would sneak out of the window’

Olympic Channel [OC]: When you were young, did you practice sport?

Zenay Jordaan [ZJ]: Yes, I did. I was very active from a very young age. I played cricket, soccer, athletics, and obviously rugby. But I started off excelling in athletics. I was a 100m/200m sprinter for Eastern Province. I got a hamstring injury after one of my final sprint races, and from there I couldn't come back as strong as I was. But luckily for me, that wasn't the only thing that I enjoyed doing. I then shifted my focus from athletics to rugby.

OC: How did you get into rugby?

ZJ: I had an interest in rugby because I grew up in a home where my parents are crazy about the sport. My dad is a big rugby fan as he was a rugby player himself as well. My mother loves rugby too though she played table tennis. My dad would wake me up at 3 am to watch a rugby game. Waking up those mornings and also the times I played during the day as well got me more interested in rugby.

I would watch TV and see a player doing a certain skill and I can't wait to get out of the house just to try and do that skill. I used to play some touch street rugby with the boys as well. That also got me into it.

"When I realised I had fallen in love with rugby was when I would sneak out of the window to go play and train, because I was so eager to go and try and the moves I had seen on TV." - Zenay Jordaan.

My mother wasn’t really happy about that.

Playing rugby with boys

OC: How old were you when you started playing with the boys or tried out touch rugby?

ZJ: I was about five-six years old. I was very competitive because I didn't want the boys to beat me. But I think in terms of skill and understanding the game, they also played a big role in that.

OC: How has your career developed over the years?

ZJ: I joined my first team, the boys’ team at primary school. I played all the games, even if it was for a few minutes. Some years later I found out that there was a women’s team in my town, Middelburg. I joined them and started my training with them.

In 2005, when I was 14 years [old], I got the chance to play for the provincial team. That same year, I joined the U-16 National team, and that is basically where my journey began.

In 2006, I got called up to the Springbok Sevens camp. I finally got my opportunity in 2008 when we played the Seven’s World Cup qualifiers in Uganda.

Rugby or firefighting?

OC: You were among one of the first Springbok players to get a professional contract. What did that mean for you?

ZJ: It meant a lot. It is what we always wanted as a group. We wanted to lay a foundation, with the hope that we will get contracts one day. It was a good feeling because we felt finally women’s rugby is being taken a bit seriously.

But I also had a very tough decision to make. I had got a job like a few weeks before they offered us contracts. I was training to be a firefighter.

it wasn't easy though a lot of things went through my mind.

I always knew my passion, my love for rugby was stronger than my dream of being a firefighter and I was willing to take that risk of taking on the contract.

You can only play rugby for a certain amount of time and the risk of injury is high. Here you had a job that’s basically what I always wanted, to become a firefighter. It was a tough choice to make, simply because the job was a safer option.

When I spoke to my parents about it, they were 100% on board with me to take up what I loved.

I am a risk-taker, I followed my heart. I didn’t want to leave that golden opportunity to slip out of my hand. It is a decision that I will never regret, to be a professional rugby player.

No one ‘runs over me’

OC: For a player with such a stellar career, your size could be deceptive… [Jordaan is 155 cm (5' 1") tall]

ZJ: [Laughs] I say the size is not what counts, it’s something within your heart that’s bigger than that. I also used to laugh at players underestimating me.

Even when I was very young, they kept saying you are tiny, you are skinny and I’m the fly-half. But there's one thing that I won't allow: players to run over me, regardless of how small I am.

As a small player, you have to think there are some upper body battles you cannot win. The easier way is to go for the legs. You can still [make] contact, so ankles is the best way to do it.

Zenay Jordaan (10) tackles Voahirana Marie Sophie Razafiarisoa of Madagascar during Rugby Africa Women's World Cup match in 2019 in Johannesburg, South Africa.

OC: How has rugby helped you?

ZJ: Rugby has helped me become independent. I have taken a bit of stress from my parents as well. There was like a sort of relief from my side also to know that financial stress has become a bit lighter because now I'm not dependent on them anymore. I have also grown up into a person they loved to see.

OC: What is the power of sports?

ZJ: Sport brings people together. It unites people.

Like when South Africa [men's team] won the Rugby World Cup last year, it seemed like it united the country and even Africa, you know, in celebration. There might have been many South Africans who didn't believe that they'll win the World Cup, but they went out there and they proved everything wrong. And from them being able to pull it off, regardless of what was going on, was something amazing. It brought the country together again.

World Cup win an inspiration

OC: Did you and the team draw inspiration from the success of the men's team [at the 2019 Rugby World Cup] in Japan?

ZJ: Yes, that was an inspiration to us because we knew how things were before they went to the World Cup. We knew that they might have lost a few [local] fans, but that didn't stop them from doing what they could do and believing in they could achieve.

It’s the same for us as well. Many might not think that we will go and do good at the World Cup next year, but in that environment is where our belief comes in.

OC: Talking about the World Cup next year will be a big one for your team. Your sixth World Cup…

ZJ: That’s a golden opportunity. I always say that if I get the opportunity, I will make sure that I grasp it and take it with both hands, and make the most of it. To me, it was even more important to help my team qualify, than even for me to go to the World Cup.

That brings joy to my heart that I've done my part. The World Cup - that is something exciting to look forward to.

"Never think you are bigger than the game”

OC: Zenay, you are considered one of the best female rugby union players in South Africa, and in Africa. What goes into being the greatest in your sport?

ZJ: I sometimes argue that, because I look at different players – those I play with and against - I think they are far much better than me. I would never forget what my dad said to me:

‘My child, if you end up playing for the country, or whatever heights you reach in your career, keep your feet grounded.'

'And stay humble within your achievement. Never think you are better than anyone else. Never think you are bigger than the game.'

I would never think that I'm one of the best players. I know the work that I have put in or what it took for me to get there. The pressure of staying on top of my game never stops. The belief in myself is what is more important for me.

OC: What has kept you going over the 15 years playing high-level rugby?

ZJ: At some stage, it was more of curiosity, and fun to me. And sometimes that fire in your belly that pushes you to keep on moving.

I am still trying to figure out what is it that is still keeping me moving forward, and still enjoying what I do. It's deeper than the passion and love for the game.

I still get asked, ‘when are you going to retire?’ or some people say, ‘it's time to retire!'

And I ask them, ‘but why should I do that? I love this game. If that means I can play this game for the rest of my life, I will do that.' I will stop playing that the day I have broken every bone in my body

I must admit there was a stage I felt like I am done with this. I didn’t have the drive anymore. I didn’t enjoy what I was doing anymore. I had those tough days when I felt like, ‘Why am I doing this to my body? Why am putting it through so much stress?’ I was also in a dark place, where I wanted to quit. I didn’t want anything to do with training, playing.

But I reminded myself why I started in the first place, and how far I have come, to throw all that away because of a few challenges, it was not worth it.

Switching off and on

OC: How do you train your brain, you know, when you're going through dark periods?

ZJ: I do have my dark times but I have trained my brain in a way that I wouldn't want someone to take me down because of what they are going through. My biggest thing is the people around me. If I am going to let myself down, then I'm also letting the people that have always worked hard around me.

That team at such times [is] more important. So I shift everything aside and focus on the job at hand. Once I’m done then I switch off, then I go and deal with the stuff that is bothering me. I don’t drag my problems into my game.

OC: How easy is it to just switch off, and get into the game zone?

ZJ: It takes a lot to mentally succeed in parking that and moving forward. But you always have to realise that the job is bigger than you. Self-talk also helps and going out there to play that’s therapy too for me. It puts me in a better space. That is my happy place: training, playing. That’s where I am zoned in.

OC: What has been the best moment of your career?

ZJ: I would list wearing my Springbok jersey for the first time as one of the top things. I would also highlight the 2009 Rugby World Cup [Sevens] in Dubai. There was a different dynamic in our team that came out so strongly and we did so well, losing against Australia in the semi-finals.

Zenay Jordaan scores a try during the ninth Place Play-Off match between South Africa and Wales in the 2010 IRB Women's Rugby World Cup.

Missed Olympic Games

OC: And what's the biggest disappointment or miss in your career so far?

ZJ: The 2018 Women's World Cup, simply because I had this big picture in my head without even realising that it was my third Rugby World Cup. I had worked super hard to make the team. Then I got injured in the first game of the World Cup. And not being able to continue playing was very disappointing.

The miss is the Olympics, that is a big event, a golden opportunity, and every player wants to participate in the Olympics, to be an Olympian.

Obviously, to me, it was disappointing that we couldn’t go, to miss that opportunity. It was it was very disappointing because I know that I have basically ticked all the boxes, there was only one box left, the Olympic box.

[Despite winning the African Olympic qualifiers in 2016 and 2020, the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee opted not to grant the team the continental Olympic ticket. SASCOC maintains a policy of not accepting Olympic quota spots won at continental events.]

OC: And who inspires you?

ZJ: In life, my parents.

In rugby it's Cecil Afrika; it’s unfortunate that he's stepping down, he’s really a good man on and off the field of play. He has done so much for the game. He is a role model.

OC: And finally, what are your thoughts on the interest for women's rugby in Africa, [especially] South Africa?

ZJ: There’s much more interest from women at the moment.

The game has improved. There are still areas that can be worked on. Like, getting girls to play rugby from school level or at a younger age. Not necessarily contact, but to get them interested, to know the game.

From a development side… at the grassroots level, there aren’t many girls who know about the game or even know women are playing out there. The more exposure we get in Africa for them to see it can inspire them in so many ways. We want women’s games to be taken to the people.