By Robson Sharuko
Harare - After his debut game in charge of Zimbabwe fizzled out to a rather disappointing home draw against Morocco, two weeks ago, Peter de Villiers gets his first away assignment in charge of the Sables in Kenya this weekend in a Rugby Gold Cup battle, which they can barely afford to keep alive their hopes for a return to the Rugby World Cup.
Zimbabwean rugby authorities invested a lot into this Gold Cup campaign, including luring the experienced De Villiers to guide the Sables, in a bold statement of their intentions to end the country’s lengthy wait for a place at the Rugby World Cup.
The Sables last took part in the Rugby World Cup 27 years ago in a tournament hosted in England, Scotland and Wales where they featured in Pool 2 and batted the Scots, the Irish and Japan, losing all their three matches at the tournament.
The Sables went down 11-55 to Ireland in their first pool game before 40,000 fans at Lansdowne Road in Dublin with Brendon Dawson, who is now the national team assistant coach under the coaching department led by De Villiers, scoring a try for the Zimbabweans.
William Schultz scored the other try for the Sables while Andy Ferreira added the extras.
Scotland then compounded the Sables woes in their next pool match when the co-hosts defeated Zimbabwe 51-12 before 35,000 fans at Murrayfield with Adrian Garvey, a prop who later played for the South African Springboks, scoring two tries for the Sables.
The Zimbabweans’ last World Cup match was a 52-8 thrashing at the hands of Japan in Belfast with Richard Tsimba, the late centre who was called “The Black Diamond” scoring the only try for the Sables while Honeywell Nguruve added the extras.
Tsimba, who tragically died in a car accident in Harare, had captured the imagination of the globe at the 1987 Rugby World Cup with his two stunning tries against Romania, in a narrow 21-20 defeat for the Sables at Eden Park in Auckland, New Zealand.
Now, the latest generation of Sables has a tough task to try and power their way back to the World Cup, through the Gold Cup qualifiers, where only one team will make the trip to the showcase next year.
Namibia have been the dominant force in the Gold Cup and they have already underlined their superiority by winning their first two matches in the tournament, including a record 118-0 destruction of Tunisia in Windhoek last weekend.
There were four tries apiece for Leslie Klim and JC Greyling while Chrysander Botha grabbed a hat-trick which provided further evidence of the gulf in class between the Namibians, who are known as the Welwitschias, and other teams.
They started their campaign with a 55-6 win over Uganda at the same venue, a week earlier, and they have 173 points and a healthy point difference of 167.
Neither Uganda nor Tunisia managed to breach the Namibian defenses and score a try in the two matches in a competition where four points plus a bonus point are awarded for a team that wins by, at least, three tries and a draw brings two points.
Other guidelines to the tournament say:
If a team refuses to play or abandons a match or was expelled from the tournament, its opponent will be declared the winner of the match opposing both teams (unless a different decision made by Rugby Africa) and will receive 4 points (+20 points scored)
The winner will be established according to the ranking at the end of the competition according to the results of the matches, the number of points and other criteria.
The last team will be relegated in the Rugby Africa Silver Cup in 2019 and be replaced by the winner of the 2018 Silver cup in the 2019 Gold Cup.
The first three teams ranked 1, 2, 3 at the end of the 2018 tournament will host 3 matches in 2019. Teams ranked 4, 5 and 6 will play away three times in 2019 and host two matches each.
Kenya, who host Zimbabwe this weekend in Nairobi, are second on the table after winning their only match to date with a 28-24 victory over Morocco in which they scored four tries and conceded as many tries in their contest in Casablanca.
Morocco are in third place while the Zimbabweans are in fourth and will be hoping to finally kick-start a campaign that started with a draw against Morocco in a match the Sables were expected to win.
The Kenyans showed great spirit, as they rallied from a 7-10 half-time deficit to defeat a resilient Morocco in Casablanca last weekend.
“Well, obviously, we are very smiley at the moment…we were a little bit worried towards the end…obviously we had to play a lot of footie to get in front at the end,” Kenyan coach Ian Snook said.
“It could have gone either way …we are delighted with how it went. Morocco have got big, strong players…they are direct…they are well organized and know what they want to do.
“We knew what we were here to deal with but on lots of occasions we weren’t good enough to deal with it.”
Zimbabwe have the better record, in head-to-head battles against the Kenyans with the Sables having won 11 of their 17 meetings while the Kenyans have won six of those games.
But both Kenya and Zimbabwe know that they are playing in the shadow of the all-conquering Namibians who are away in Morocco this weekend for their third game in the tournament.
Zimbabwe will visit Tunisia on July 7 and then host Namibia on August 4.
By then, it appears, the battle for a place at the Rugby World Cup would have been confirmed if the Namibians continue to ride in the cruise control in which they have been destroying everything in their wake.
“The boys played well (against Tunisia) in the second half with the flowing passing game,” said Namibian coach Phil Davies.
“I am still in the process of building a competitive team as most of these players are still very young.”