Zintle Mpupha’s journey to becoming a rugby star came via the cricket crease.
The South African was always a sport lover. When she finally got the chance, she felt comfortable with the ball and bat, and even made the national women’s Under 19 team.
Along the way, she was convinced to try out rugby and secured her place in the national Sevens team.
But despite her breakthrough 2013, Mpupha found herself pushing through self-doubt as she adjusted to her new sport.
“After every training session, I was like, 'I'm not good enough anymore, I don't deserve to be here…’ so negative,” she said in an exclusive interview with Olympics.com.
“I just wanted to quit everything. I didn't want to be a professional rugby player… I couldn’t take it anymore.”
The 28-year-old managed to get back her confidence and become a central player for both the South African 7s and 15s teams, and more impressively become the first African to play elite women's rugby at the top level in England.
Cricket star turned rugby pro
While Mpupha has hogged headlines as a rugby star, it was as a cricket player that she first made her mark.
Growing up in a home with cricket players, she quickly followed her brothers' passion for the game. And when she finally got a chance with the bat, she could only play in the boys’ team in her village.
"There was a local coach, and he played a huge, huge role in my career and insisted that they allow me to play with boys and make sure that there was no harm or something,” she recalled.
After establishing herself as an all-rounder, it wasn’t long before cricket selectors spotted her. Mpupha joined the Under-19s side and even got drafted as a member of the women’s senior team.
“I continued with the U-19 ladies, made it to the academy, and senior team…that's slightly the journey of cricket up until I met rugby. I was approached by the ladies at the same club when I was coming from cricket practice and they asked me how I would feel about joining rugby…,” Mpupha told Olympics.com from Exeter.
“I told them I'd never play rugby in my life because I had never seen rugby as a very easy sport to get to. It was also not as popular as cricket at the time, and no one ever knew rugby back in my village. Even the guys didn't have rugby, it was just soccer and cricket.”
Overcoming insecurities to become Africa’s top pro
After switching back-and-forth from the crease and the pitch, Mpupha finally settled on rugby. In 2014, she earned her first callup to the national sevens team. It was a memorable debut.
“When I put the jersey over my shoulders for the first time and I happened to score a try. That was in Amsterdam in 2014. [That moment] has stayed with me.
“I started to represent my country, and everyone was looking up to me like I was looking up at the likes of Mandisa Williams…I was living the dream and now people were looking up to me,” she said.
Since then, the versatile player has cemented her position in both the Sevens and 15s squads. Her runs, kicks and passes have been vital for the Springbok women's teams.
She remarkably switches between her role as a fly-half and a dependable centre, whose speed and power have been crucial in her impressive haul of tries.
“I do believe that I'm a great 10 and I should stick playing 10 (fly half), but I enjoy 13 (centre) more than 10.”
In August 2021, Mpupha broke the national try-scoring record for the Springbok Women's team scoring four tries in a test match against Kenya.
As she savoured the historical achievement, Mpupha reflected on a defining moment in her career when she struggled with her inner critic.
“At that time, I didn’t want to be a professional rugby player or play the game,” she said of the tough period she considered quitting rugby which ended up strengthening her faith.
“I started going to church as well, getting to know God a little bit more. Things just dramatically started to change. [Spirituality] changed my whole thinking, it changed my whole career.
"I was like in the corner, just dropping everything and just doing a simple thing which is just praying, and I started getting compliments, getting to the starting line-up, my confidence was back.”
The dream move to the Allianz Arena
The convincing 66-0 drubbing over the East Africans offered the world a glimpse into one of the continent’s best rugby players.
Soon the rugby star who rose to captain the rainbow nation's Sevens side for five years and led them to the 2018 World Cup and the Commonwealth Games, was signed up by Exeter Chiefs, making history as the first South African to play in England’s professional league.
“That was always a dream,” she said when asked about being one of only two South African women's players with a professional contract. Her compatriot Babalwa Latsha joined Spanish club SD Eibar in 2020.
“It was like a huge spotlight that I never expected. It didn't matter what country it was … to be like the trendsetters, be the first African girl to come play in the Allianz Premiership.”
Moving to the UK in September 2021 hugely boosted her confidence and made her believe in herself again.
“One thing I have learnt about myself is how strong I am. Playing in a team full of internationals, with the English players, Americans and having to compete for one shirt...and I get selected. It has made me a courageous person, [I have learnt] how strong I am and that I am capable to be anything I want to be as a person.
She is also impressed with the recognition the women’s game gets abroad.
“The highlight of me coming here realizing how much passion everyone has for rugby and how far they go to support women's rugby. I've probably played on TV here so much more than I've ever played in my whole rugby career,” she said.
“When you're about to get into a field and you don't even know these people and they're cheering for you, and not only because they know you, but they are cheering for the game, cheering for the fact that they get a chance to come to watch a rugby game, a female rugby game.”- Zintle Mpupha on women’s rugby in England.
Her overall outlook on the game has also improved.
“I have learned that, as an African player, we are very physical, and we all think that rugby is just like pumping everyone around you, which is great. We only focus mostly on contact of the game, but we also need to look at how tactical the game is and be able to analyse the game while you're in the game.”
South African World Cup hopes
She wants to leverage the exposure as a professional to help South Africa, which currently lies 13th in the world rankings, but more importantly inspire the growth of grassroots rugby.
“I want to give hope to the younger kids out there, especially those from the rural areas, those who play without shoes. I want that when they see me they can have hope that if I can get here, they too can get whenever and wherever they want to" - Zintle Mpupha to Oympics.com
“I am not to just going to sit and say this in front of a screen, I will put my hand up whenever there's an opportunity for me to go speak somewhere, put my hands up to go and coach. I don't even like coaching, but if there’s an opportunity that I need to go help at some school, go help at that certain club… I will go.”
Before she can consider a permanent move to a coaching unit, the Human Movement Sciences graduate wants to make a mark at the 2022 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand in October and November.
“I also want to represent my country for the second time, especially at home for the Sevens World Cup,” she said of the seven-a-side World Cup set for September 2022.
“Hopefully, if everything goes well with that too, I can be able to get a spot in both World Cups.”
But even the positive expectations cannot ease the pain of missing out on two Olympic Games editions. The top African women’s Sevens team missed Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020 because the South African Olympic Committee doesn’t allow its teams to accept Olympic tickets through the continental qualifiers.
“I know my career with that Olympic dream is now dead, but I still am living for the fight for the younger generation. It would be great to see a South African [women’s] Sevens team going to the Olympics.
"That's when I would say we have fought the fight and it doesn’t have to happen to us, as long as the next generation gets to enjoy it and get the opportunities that we never got when we were at that level.”