Coach Fillies takes women’s rugby to new heights

Coach Fillies takes women’s rugby to new heights

Date: January 1, 1970
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The rugby season is over and the reception area of the Matie Rugby Club is quiet. An array of sports and fitness magazines are neatly stacked on the coffee table at the centre of the room: Bryan Habana soaring over the try line on the cover of one; a bodybuilder flexing his well-oiled biceps on another.

Overhead, a cricket match is being aired on the flat screen television against the wall. Avril Fillies, with a presence betraying her small stature and frame, enters just as Pakistan loses a wicket. “Hello,” she says, smiling from behind her glasses. “I’m the coach of the Steinhoff Matie Women’s Rugby team.”
Fillies has coached the 27 players of the University of Stellenbosch’s only female rugby team for just a year now, but her experience in sports is extensive. She is currently also a sports writer for Kaap-Rapport and has, in the past, been assistant coach of the Western Province Women’s Rugby team as well as several male teams.
“In fact,” she says proudly, “my record as rugby coach of the army’s team in their national championships still stands: My team was the only one ever to make the semi-finals two years in a row.”
Fillies has been an avid sports fan since school. Growing up in District Six she played netball and participated in athletics, but she also always went to watch her father play rugby and soon developed a passion for the sport. After matriculating at Bishop Davis High School in the late seventies, she went on to complete a BA degree at the University of the Western Cape and, soon thereafter in 1982, joined Die Burger as their apartheid rugby writer.
“Luckily today there are more female sports journalists,” Avril says. “But back then I was the first. Men would often say to me, ‘You don’t even play the game. How can you know anything about it?’ But I learnt through observation. I could very comfortably write match previews, match summaries and analysis pieces.”
Fillies stayed at Die Burger until 2000, when she resigned to care for her parents who have since passed away. During this time, the eldest of her two sons was completing a sports management course. When driving him to attend a two-day rugby-coaching course at Newlands one day, Avril decided to sign up with him.
“I was the only woman there,” she remembers. “So I became the first woman to complete level one of the course – and with higher marks than my son and Chester Williams!” She then went on to complete the second and third levels and started her career as coach while completing the practical component of the course.
As a woman in a male-dominated sport, Avril says she constantly has to give “200% more than any man.”
“I’m lucky because men in the industry know me from my writing, but women’s rugby isn’t always taken very seriously. It still has an amateur status.” This, she says, is because women – who generally start playing rugby much later than men do and who’ve only recently been given sufficient opportunity – take longer to master the basics and therefore have less time for working on tactics and playing patterns. However, the attitudes of the media – and female players themselves – also contribute to this perception.
“I don’t know if women’s rugby can ever hold the same status as men’s rugby,” Fillies says, “but editors need to make a mind-shift regarding women’s sports and female sports journalists. Firstly, women’s sports need to be given more coverage, even if it’s only a regular single column in a newspaper. And secondly, female journalists should be given more opportunity to report on male-dominated sports and not only the ‘less important’ sports like netball or hockey.”
ith all the emphasis placed on men’s rugby, soccer and cricket, Fillies continues, many female journalists prefer to cover these sports in order to make their mark and women’s sports are further derogated to second class.
“And one has to remember,” Fillies says, “those female sports players often don’t receive any monetary incentive to play. Most female rugby players, for example, don’t get paid but rather incur additional costs when buying uniforms and arranging their own transport. It’s not the same as for men, where rugby can become a fulltime job or a source of additional income.” Here, she says, clubs have a role to play in uplifting the status of the sport so that women themselves can start taking it more seriously.
However, Fillies says, things are slowly changing and women are getting more involved. “It would also help if female rugby players could stop being judged under the stereotype of being butch or lesbian. I love rugby but I also cry in soppy films and love reading Mills & Boon romance novels!”
Fillies says she hopes to one-day take on the first level of SA Rugby’s coaching course, but in order to do so a provincial representative must first nominate her. “So I’m waiting,” she says, her eyes crinkling in a smile. She may be waiting quite a while: No woman has been nominated before.
In the meantime, she hopes to have her contract at the university renewed and continues to silence the sceptics.
“Well,” she says, smiling up at me from shoulder height as she stands to open the door, “you know what they say about dynamite.”

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