By Robson Sharuko
Harare - The Namibians are running away with the ticket to the 2019 Rugby World Cup, as their steamrolling machine crushes everything in its wake, but the sensational fallout from the ill-treatment of the Zimbabwe Sables in Tunisia earlier this week has certainly cast a dark cloud over the battles for a place in Japan next year.
Rugby Africa and Tunisia Rugby were forced to deal with the damages inflicted by the way the North African nation ill-treated the visiting Zimbabwean team, amid claims some of their acts bordered on racism, after the Sables ended up sleeping on the streets of Tunisa on their first day in that country.
The Sables, who are under the guidance of former Springboks coach Peter de Villiers, are set to take on their Tunisian counterparts in a key Africa Gold Cup match this weekend but even that game has already been relegated into the background because of the negativity cast by the off-the-field drama that met the Zimbabweans in Tunisia.
Both Rugby Africa and Tunisia Rugby were yesterday forced to issue an apology to their Zimbabwean counterparts after the Sables were detained at the airport in Tunis for more than six hours and were then thrown into a sub-standard lodge which the players and management staff rejected.
Pictures of the Sables spending the night sleeping on the streets of Tunis went viral on social media and angered millions of Zimbabweans dotted around the world.
“Rugby Africa has been made aware of the difficulties encountered by the Zimbabwean Rugby team – the Sables – with regards to their accommodation in Tunisia,” the continent’s sport governing body said.
“We would like to reassure the Zimbabwean Ministry of Sports, Zimbabwe Rugby Union, and all partners and fans that the situation was addressed immediately, and an acceptable solution has been found this morning. Tunisia Rugby Union took the Sables management to visit another hotel which was accepted.
“Rugby Africa and Tunisia Rugby Union would like to express their sincere apologies to the Sables team and management for this unfortunate situation. This does not reflect the standards of the Rugby Africa Gold Cup competition and we sincerely regret any prejudice caused.”
The ill-treatment of the Sables also mirrors the challenges which many visiting teams have encountered across Africa where the hosts usually employ some unorthodox methods, including those that now belong to the Stone Age, in their desperate attempts to deflect the focus of the visitors.
The primitive methods are usually common in football but the Tunisians, whose team crashed out of the FIFA World Cup on the first hurdle, somehow tainted their rugby image by choosing to ill-treat a rugby team in a competition that has, until now, been free from such incidents.
It must have been a shock for De Villiers, the 61-year-old South African, who was recruited to end a nightmare that has been plaguing Zimbabwe rugby since the Sables last took part at the Rugby World Cup in 1991.
He is used to seeing the red carpet being rolled by hosts, in his adventure as coach of the Springboks, who engage in annual battles against Australia and New Zealand.
Despite his team’s false start, after a defeat in Kenya following a surprise draw at home against Morocco, De Villiers, somehow, remains hopeful for the future of the game in this country despite their false start in the qualifiers for a place in Japan next year.
The Sables are winless after two games of the Rugby Africa Gold Cup, which also serve as qualifiers for next year’s Rugby World Cup, after a 23-23 home draw against Morocco in their first game before they collapsed, in the final three minutes, to concede two tries and lose 36-45 against Kenya in Nairobi last Saturday.
“Tough day at the office. The boys have shown me that they have what it takes, there are very many positives,” De Villiers said on his Twitter account after the loss in Nairobi.
“It was truly a great performance and we match onwards. I salute the boys, my support team and the nation for their continued support. Go Sables.”
There is no question that De Villiers has embraced his new challenge and, for all his team’s struggles in their first two games under his leadership, the coach really wants to see Zimbabwean rugby in general, and the Sables in particular, find a way back to the top.
It wasn’t something that was always going to be achieved overnight and while expectations were high going into the Gold Cup this year, the reality is that the Sables had fallen way behind, in terms of their competitiveness, for them to really sparkle and challenge for the World Cup this year.
Maybe, what De Villiers could help them do is to build the structures needed for the revival of this national team, which is still searching for a way back to the light after years in the darkness, a foundation on which the Sables could then launch another strong bid for a World Cup place.
Sables' skipper Denford Mutamangira clocked half-a-century of caps for the team when he played in that match last Saturday where he even scored a try in a losing cause. The Welwitschias of Namibia showed the gulf in class that apparently exists between them, and the rest of the competition, as they crushed Morocco 63-7 in their battle last Saturday for their third straight victory which proved that, barring any miracles, this quest for the World Cup appears done and dusted in their favour.
They have piled on 236 points in their three matches, at an average of 87.66 points per game, and they have only conceded 13 points, at an average of 4.33 points every game in a dominant display of their superiority against all the opposition they have faced so far.
The Namibians have 15 points, seven clear of second-placed Kenya, while Morocco are in third place with three points from as many games, Zimbabwe are in fourth place with just two points from their first two matches, while Uganda and Tunisia are yet to get points on the board.
The Moroccans held for seven minutes in Casablanca last Saturday before the tsunami struck with tries from Johannes Coetzee scoring the opening try, which was converted by Cliven Louber, and when vice-captain Pieter-Jan Van Lill buried another try under the posts, three minutes later, the writing was on the wall.
By the time the break came, the Namibians were leading 35-0.
The Moroccans had probably never seen such a powerful team on their shores and, for good measure, the fans in Casablanca gave the Namibians a fitting standing ovation at the end of the match.
“We knew this team was physical, so we matched them. We made a good job, and I think we’re lucky to get the 5 points,” Namibian skipper Johan Deysel told the APO Group, who are the partners of the Gold Cup.
“We got here on Tuesday and we prepared well, even though travelling long-distance is hard. Congrats to Morocco for a good game and a good spirit.”