By Robson Sharuko
Harare - Peter de Villiers finally enjoyed a win in his role as coach of the Zimbabwe Sables, with his team winning a high-stakes battle in Uganda, but the glory on the final weekend of this year’s Rugby Africa Gold Cup went to the dominant Namibians who celebrated a sixth successive World Cup appearance.
De Villiers, the former Springboks coach hired to breathe life into the Zimbabwe Sables, had endured a frustrating start to life in his new job across the Limpopo as his team stumbled from one bad result to another leaving them facing the grim possibility of relegation from the Gold Cup last weekend.
But, when they needed a solid response to keep their place in the elite group, the Sables produced their best performance of the campaign and beat Uganda 38-18 on the road to ensure they not only avoided the embarrassment of relegation into the Silver Group but they gave their long-suffering fans a reason to believe in the future.
De Villiers’ men had shown some signals they were turning the corner, after a miserable campaign in which they drew at home to Morocco, lost to Kenya and again were beaten in Tunisia, when they gave as much as they got in their showdown against the best team in the qualifiers, Namibia, in Bulawayo.
Although they were well beaten 28-58 by the Namibians at Hartsfield Grounds in Bulawayo, the Sables showed the spirit and adventure which had been lacking in their game in this campaign and became the first side, in the qualifiers, to score four tries against the Welwitschias.
That appeared to provide them with a confidence-booster for their showdown against the Ugandans in Kampala where they needed nothing short of victory to ensure they retained their fate in their hands in the battle to avoid relegation and ensure De Villiers would have something to build on should he stay in the job as is largely expected.
“Great win for is today, the boys did us proud 18-38 @ZimbabweSable #rebuildstartsnow #itsourtime #proud coach,” De Villiers said on Twitter.
That he mentioned that this was the time to start the rebuilding exercise of the Sables, it gave away the possibility that he intends to stay for the long haul despite the disappointment that came with missing the World Cup ticket for a dance with the game’s finest teams in Japan next year.
The coach has made it clear that he didn’t expect he would work miracles, from the word go, when he took over as the new Zimbabwe coach given the Sables have drifted far away from the heavyweights of the game and have never qualified for the World Cup since 1991.
“This is my biggest challenge but, then again, I have got a good medical team around me that will advise me,” he said when he accepted the job.
“They tested all the players, they were all assessed medically and we know where they stand and we now know how to handle them; to really give them that top notch. So I’m really, really happy to know where we are now.”
Beating Namibia for a place at the next World Cup would have been a milestone achievement and, by the end of the campaign, the Zimbabweans were nowhere near being competitive or consistent enough to do that with only Kenya, who won all but one of their qualifiers, providing the Welwitschias with the challenge.
But even the East Africans proved no match for the rampant Namibians and, in the winner-take-all battle for a place at the next Rugby World Cup in Windhoek, last Saturday, in the last game of the qualifiers, it was the hosts who emerged triumphant.
Namibia ran out 53-28 winners of that match as they touched down seven times while the Kenyans, who to their credit tried to spoil the party, replied with four tries.
In the end there was no denying that the best team, by a considerable distance, fittingly won the battle for a place at the 2019 Rugby World Cup while the worst team, by a country mile, predictably ended up being relegated from the Rugby Africa Gold Cup last Saturday.
Namibia had dominated the Rugby World Cup qualifiers, for the last five editions, and the Welwitschias confirmed why they remain the strongest rugby-playing side on the continent, after South Africa, with their sixth straight appearance at the global showcase.
Fly-half Cliven Loubser scored 22 points during the game and Chrysander Botha and Louis van der Westhuizen scored two tries apiece against the Kenyans with the Namibians booking a place to play in Pool B of the Rugby World Cup next year where they will take on world champions New Zealand, South Africa and Italy.
The group features two nations who have won the World Cup before, the All Blacks of New Zealand, and the Springboks of South Africa.
Pool A has Ireland, Scotland, Japan, Russia and Samoa, Pool C has England, France, Argentina, the United States and Tonga, Pool D has Australia, Wales, Georgia, Fiji and Uruguay.
The Kenyans will battle in the four-team global repechage in Marseiile, France, in November this year.
“We played well today, the team stuck to the game plan,” Namibia’s Welsh coach, Phil Davies, told journalists after their success story in Windhoek.
“This means a lot as we have been building a team since the last World Cup. We have an average age of 24 years now, compared to 31, at the previous tournament. We have depth now.”
Namibia lost all their four Pool C matches at the last World Cup in England and finished bottom of their group after being beaten 14-58 by eventual champions New Zealand, 21-35 by Tonga, 16-17 by Tonga and 19-64 by Argentina.
The All Blacks dominated the group with 19 points, Argentina were second with 15 points, Georgia were third with eight points and Tonga were fourth with one point.
Abdelaziz Bougja, chairman of Rugby Africa, said Namibia reaped deserved rewards for their dominance of the qualifiers in which they were the standout team.
“Namibia has been impressive all along this competition and today the strongest team has won. Congratulations and I have no doubt that they will make us proud at the RWC 2019 in Japan,” he said in a statement.
“Well done as well to Kenya who kept going and played really well. I am very proud of our African teams and the progress they have made over recent years.”
The founder and chief executive of the APO Group, Nicolas Pompigne-Mognard, whose company are the main official partners of Rugby Africa, said they will do all they can to try and help Namibia do well at the next World Cup.
“As the main Official Partner of Rugby Africa, we will put all our efforts in ensuring the world knows about Namibia’s participation in the World Cup,” he said.
“We will soon unveil a communication plan aimed at promoting African rugby during the Rugby World Cup 2019.”
Morocco were relegated into the Silver Group after their 13-36 defeat at the hands of Tunisia.