Rugby Africa’s Unstoppable Christel Janet (CJ) Kotze chose the unbeaten path when she followed her father’s footsteps to the helm rugby in Namibia, and now Africa.
To her, patience and determination are the ingredients of a personality that has propelled her to the top of a sport that only began gaining traction in Africa in the past two decades. The women’s version is till in the early stages of development in a handful of countries in Africa.
CJ, to her colleagues and friends, is certainly a force to reckon with in African rugby. Handpicked as one of 12 leading women in rugby on the African continent as part of Rugby Africa’s Unstoppable campaign, the Absolute Rugby television producer and coach is now a beacon of inspiration in the women’s game.
World Rugby launched the Unstoppable campaign alongside its Women in Rugby brand in May, 2019, using the inspirational stories of 15 ‘Unstoppable’ women to normalise their participation and increased engagement.
Since childhood, 27-year-old Kotze was destined for bigger things having watched former Namibia international winger Jaco Kotze – her father – during his training sessions. In her words, it was like father, like daughter despite reservations in the initial stages of involvement in the sport.
When she debuted in the sport back in 2013, she became part of a historic a generation of Namibian ladies in 2014 when she made the cut for Namibia’s first-ever national women’s rugby team. Hitherto, the sport was a preserve of men, with Namibia ranked among the top rugby sides in Africa alongside South African, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Uganda.
With lots of lessons learnt during the team’s first play in the 2014 Africa Women’s Sevens in Kenya, Kotze welcomed 2015 with gusto as she led her team as the captain. She tasted first win in the Africa Women’s Sevens tournament in South Africa after the Nairobi tournament.
“The 2015 tournament in South Africa had a different energy around it. The squad felt stronger, the belief in the team grew. Something was telling us that this tournament was going to be better than the previous year. It was in the second match of day one when everything came together. I was in the right place at the right time. I got the ball on the right wing and just sped off and did what was expected of me (scored a try),” recalls Kotze.
She went on, “I found the gap and I ran as if my life depended on it, scoring the try under the post. Just moments later I managed to convert the try. It was only after the game that I realised what had happened and how big it was!”
She reveals that there was a time when it became a struggle to get the game back on its feet. However, it only started picking up in 2019 when a group of people who passionately believed in the potential of women’s rugby pushed for formation of grassroots teams. By the start of 2020 there were three distinct teams in central Namibia. Today there are currently six senior women’s rugby clubs countrywide.
“The future of the game in Namibia seems to be promising once again, with more schoolgirls taking an interest in the game, meaning at a grassroots level the game is growing. This in turn feeds into clubs and eventually the national team. Hopefully with this the Namibian national women’s team can once again step up and become a contender at African cups and not just as a participant in the next two years,”
With aspirations to become the first national coach of the women’s national team, Kotze is currently coaching at club and high school level, following an anterior cruciate ligament injury that led her to trade her boots for the whistle. As the first woman in Namibia to attain Sevens Level Two coaching certificate in 2019, Kotze admits that the biggest challenge that women’s rugby faces is the stigma surrounding the sport.
While coaching at Orban, she says, it was difficult to handle the boys. In the beginning it was hard trying to convince their fathers – who were experts in the game – that two ladies could coach their boys.
She reveals that they stood their ground. “Yes, at first, we did not win but the skill level and understanding of the game the boys had was clear and with each passing year the wins started rolling in. In the last two years, as the boys approached a big tour, a few fathers joined us to help hold tackle bags and just generally help where needed. Slowly their perspective changed about women coaching boys. I think the biggest lesson I learned through coaching the boys is to keep believing in your vision even if others do not see it or believe it. Keep believing in yourself,” Kotze talks of the hurdles she has to overcome.
Rugby Africa General Manager, Coralie van den Berg, says that Kotze epitomises what the Unstoppable campaign stands for.
Through the Unstoppable project, Rugby Africa is raising the profile and promoting women in rugby for a sustained change in the perception and diversity of the sport. The area that still needs special focus is the representation of female coaches and match officials as this is very low.
Kotze has been hailed a trailblazer in the area and has excelled in her coaching career. Her found love for coaching and her stance to give young boys and girls a real shot at a good rugby future is remarkable.’
Rugby Africa Women’s Rugby manager Maha Zaoui described that Kotze was a shining example of leading women in rugby within Africa.
“CJ truly stands heads and shoulders over fellow women. She compares to her male peers who have been in the game longer). Through her contribution and determination, we certainly could see a future national coach taking her team all the way to the Rugby World Cup. It is exactly her passion and deep love for the game that we need to light the path for future women in rugby,” Zaoui observes.
- A Tell report