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Monday, November 29, 2021

Premier 15s set to welcome first South African as Zintle Mpupha joins Exeter squad to take on Saracens

WOMEN do not get into professional rugby for the money or glamour. There’s not a great deal of either.

In the men’s game if a club brings one of South Africa’s top talents into England’s top league he can expect hundreds of thousands in salary, and look forward to a retirement spent taking in the views across his estate and sipping a glass of wine produced from his own vineyard.

Zintle Mpupha arrived in Devon less than two weeks ago from South Africa’s Premier Division side DHL Western Province. She is now sharing a house with three other Exeter Chiefs.

“I’m sharing with three other girls, Olivia Jones, Kanako [Kobayashi] and Grace [Eckford] in a house in Exeter, just a walk away from Sandy Park,” says the 27-year-old who can play fly half or in either spot in the centres.

Her salary as one of the full-time players on the Exeter squad will not be anything special either, but what is special is her sporting talent. Having given up an international cricket career to sign up for South Africa sevens team, Mpupha has become a regular fixture in her nation’s 15s side, and in August she broke the try-scoring record when she touched down four times against Kenya.

Mpupha – who’s first name is pronounced ‘Zintlay’ – is also special for another reason. This weekend she’s set to become the first South African to play in the Premier 15s. 

Starting on the bench against multi-title winners Saracens, she’s fully aware of the intense rivalry between the two clubs. While Exeter’s men have lost out in three finals to Saracens – let’s not go into why that may have been here – the niggle between the women’s side may not be for the same reasons, but it’s no less intense.

“Oh yes, everyone is talking about it, especially as we get closer to the weekend. I’m getting so excited about it.”

As for being the first South African woman to play in the Premier 15s, Mpupha is hoping she will inspire many more to follow her lead. 

Mpupha says: “I am honoured that Exeter think I will fit into their style of rugby very well, but ultimately, getting an opportunity to play overseas has always been one of the dreams in my rugby career.

“I’m super excited to be the first South African to come over here and play, but I hope this is also the opening for others to come over in the future.” 

However, she admits the cold will take a little getting used to.

“I know I will be tested in different conditions, one of them being the weather.”

For Exeter’s coach Susie Appleby Mpupha not only bolsters her back line, she will bring some of that traditional South African power with her too. 

“She can play 10, 12 or 13, has a brilliant kicking game and brings immense physicality,” says Appleby, who has clearly seen enough in less than two weeks of training with the squad to throw her straight into one of the toughest games in the league. “On top of that, though, she’s also a smart player and she will really compliment what we have going on in our backline right now.”

Mpupha arrival in England will not be lost to the Springbok Women’s team, as her contract enables her to fulfill her national commitments, including the forthcoming November tour to Europe, and she will be available for selection to next year’s Rugby World Cup in New Zealand.

She is also handily located to get into South Africa’s sevens squad for next summer’s Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.

“Obviously everything depends on South Africa Women’s Rugby. Given any chance I definitely want to be part of the team that goes to the Commonwealth Games.”

There may not be riches and luxury homes, but there may be glory for Mpupha and her fellow Exeter players this season. In the past two weeks they have beaten current champions Harlequins as well as title contenders Wasps to sit fourth in the table. Despite this being only their second season in existence, she knows what the goals are.

“Looking at the previous season, they made it to the top six,” she says. “So, a short-term goal will be making it to the top four and taking it from there.

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