EXCLUSIVE: First lady of Springbok rugby - Annelee Murray chats to Sport24

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Annelee Murray. (Photo by Sydney Seshibedi/Gallo Images)
Annelee Murray. (Photo by Sydney Seshibedi/Gallo Images)
  • Annelee Murray, who spent two decades with the Springboks over 200 Tests, talks about the release of her new book and why she decided to step away after the 2019 World Cup.
  • The former public relations manager for the men in green and gold, shares how a long-standing friendship with Zelda la Grange was forged and the honour of meeting Madiba.
  • She also runs the rule over the Bok coaches she worked with and unpacks the way in which Jacques Nienaber and Rassie Erasmus have created a winning team environment.

Sport24 asked: What inspired your book - The First Lady of Springbok rugby?

Annelee Murray: After 20 years and 244 matches working with the Springboks, I wanted to share my journey with the public. I stepped away from my public relations role after the 2019 World Cup and the process of producing a book was a good outlet for me during Covid. In terms of putting the book together it comprised two to three hours of talking to author Mark Keohane a day for three months, with the final product ready for print three months later. At the moment, the 162-page book is only available for online sales but should hit stores soon. When working on the book, I triggered my memories by referring to past diary entries and photos… In terms of my fondest memories, they would be winning two World Cups and the 2009 British & Irish Lions series. Winning those events is the pinnacle for players but also for the management team because that is what we work towards.

Sport24 asked: How did you feel when you first entered the Springbok fold?

Annelee Murray: When I first came into the Springbok set-up there were personalities like Mark Andrews, Joost van der Westhuizen, Chester Williams, Os du Randt and Andre Venter. They were already established and I was very intimidated. They never made me feel anything other than welcome but it took me a little while to find my feet. Harry Viljoen put me firmly in my place when I suggested that he shouldn’t drop Andre Vos at one stage. Harry told me that I must concentrate on my job and he would concentrate on his. After that, I never again gave my opinion on coaching and who should be in the team… I learned to work smarter and be thick-skinned as a female in a male-dominated environment and also became resilient. I never really felt different within the environment but the travel was quite lonely in the beginning as the only lady. Fast forward to 2019 and I was one of a handful of females on the Springbok support staff. The first lady of Springbok rugby means I was the first female to travel with the Boks. In the end, there were as many as four ladies working within the management set-up. Rassie Erasmus was lauded for that owing to the diversity he cultivated. Rassie is always three steps ahead of everyone else and the appointment of Siya Kolisi as the first captain of colour for the Springboks in 2018 also bears testament to that fact.

Sport24 asked: What did you make of the changing demographics over time?

Annelee Murray: It was absolutely amazing to see how the team demographics changed over the 20 years and it came to reflect that of the country. It felt like a watershed moment when it happened. Nobody can question the pedigree of the likes of Siya Kolisi, Cheslin Kolbe and Makazole Mapimpi. I never experienced the discrimination first-hand in earlier years but I have since watched documentaries. I have seen that players like Chester Williams and Breyton Paulse have said that they did experience the question: Why were they in the team? It’s now one team and, while the #strongertogether slogan may be a bit clichéd, it’s true because in everything you are stronger together. In terms of Cheslin, he is so amazing in his thinking and is widely-regarded as the best rugby player in the world. He doesn’t limit himself at all and his mindset is: “Whatever you can do, I can do. And if I can’t do it the way I should, I’ll find another way or technique that suits me.” Cheslin continues to grab worldwide headlines for his match-winning performances but his wife Layla is a strong woman and she won’t let him develop airs or graces. She will bring him down to the ground.

Sport24 asked: Which Springbok coaches stand out for you and why?

Annelee Murray: I worked with seven Springbok coaches and all brought something different and had their own unique style. I felt like I did seven different jobs over the 20 years because aspects changed as a new coach came in each time. For example, it was the same structure in terms of travel but training schedules changed. Every time a new coach came in, it took getting used to in terms of how they wanted to work. I wouldn’t say one Springbok coach stands out above the rest. Some had more challenges than others and it was always easier when you won. With hindsight, you would say Jake White and Rassie Erasmus were great Bok coaches because they won the World Cup but not to say the others weren’t. In terms of Rassie and Jacques Nienaber, who is the incumbent, they are very much in tune with each other. They are each other’s person and get on well. Jacques knows what Rassie thinks and visa versa. I feel that it works well because they are both excellent coaches.

Sport24 asked: How highly do you rate the current crop of Springboks?

Annelee Murray: The fact that they won the series over the British & Irish Lions and then the Rugby Championship opener against Argentina, with a side that’s not their first team, was remarkable. Even our back-up team is good and I’m proud of the players and happy for them. The Springboks have got a great foundation and really impressive playing depth. At the 2019 World Cup in Japan, the players only had each other and now it’s the same in the bio-bubbles. The players genuinely like each other, whereas in previous Springbok teams they would enjoy each other’s company but weren’t necessarily as close as they are now. I think the culture management creates separates good teams from great ones. The Springbok class of 2021 have something special – good coaches, consistency and honesty – which is what every player wants. Rassie and Jacques are very honest in terms of dealing with players and never had a problem calling us out. Rassie had the famous saying of, “Carry your own tassie.” Everybody helped each other but what it meant is that your job is your most important one and if you can do yours 5 percent better, it’s that marginal gain that you’ll get.

Sport24 asked: What led to your long friendship with Zelda la Grange?

Annelee Murray: I first met Zelda in 2000 when then coach Harry Viljoen said to me, “Just phone Madiba and tell him we want to meet him.” I scurried around to find who to speak to and got Zelda’s name. From the first moment we chatted, which was a week before she made the meeting with Nelson Mandela happen, we really got on. She was the gatekeeper to an international icon, while I was the gatekeeper for the biggest sporting team in the country. We would often bounce ideas off each other in terms of how to deal with certain situations and aspects of the job. Occasionally Zelda would phone me on a Friday afternoon and Madiba would want to come to a match on the Saturday. When he attended, there were huge security protocols involved. His security team would be shown exactly where the statesman would sit and what he would need to do on match day. Madiba would then arrive at the venue and decide he wasn’t sitting there and head off towards the tunnel to meet the players. I remember when the Springboks played the Wallabies and the players passed Madiba sitting on his golf cart. George Gregan looked at me and said, “We’re in for a long day today.” On another occasion, I was having a busy day at the office and told Zelda so when she phoned. She said, “Are you and Jake too busy to have lunch with Madiba?” I replied, “No, definitely not.” We raced off to his home in Bishopscourt and the four of us enjoyed lunch at the kitchen table.

Sport24 asked: Why did you decide to call time on your Bok journey?

Annelee Murray: As with everything in life there is a season for it. As much as I miss the players and the Springbok team environment, I’m content and have no regrets having called time on my national career. However, you go through different emotions and the first time the Springboks returned to Test rugby after an 18-month Covid hiatus, I felt terribly sad and had a little tear watching their game against Georgia. After taking in that match alone on my couch, I then watched all three matches of the British & Irish Lions series with mates. I think you have to be ready to move onto something else and let someone else take over. I had been in the Springbok environment for a long time and some things can probably be done better than I could because there is always room for improvement. I knew that after the 2019 World Cup win in Japan, I wouldn’t find a better time to go.

Having enjoyed 20 years as part of the Springbok management team, Murray took 248 players under her wing. She worked with seven coaches and 21 captains, and candidly shares her unique account in The First Lady of Springbok rugby. The book is available for order at hmshop.co.za

Previous chats:

Gary Gold

Alan Quinlan

Joe Pietersen

Deon Carstens

Paul Wallace

BJ Botha

Bruce Fordyce

Eddie Andrews

Raymond Rhule

Robert Hunt

Dean Hall

Nicolaas Janse van Rensburg

Jasper Wiese

William Small-Smith

Matthew Booth

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