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Battle Royale in Africa

SENTIMENT from those around the team is that Peter de Villiers is beginning to hit his stride as Zimbabwe rugby coach in the quest to take the Sables to the World Cup for the first time since 1991.

By Enock Muchinjo

But a glance at the opposition’s activities shows that the former Springbok boss will have his hands full.

Giants Namibia are always an elephant in the room and given their record — qualifying for the World Cup as the lone African team (outside South Africa) for the past five previous editions since 1999 — will start as favourites again this time around.

But the days when African rugby was an exclusive club for two or three dominant nations are now in the rear-view mirror.

Kenya, for example, have been a wonderful example of an African nation that has made concerted and deliberate efforts to make a mark in rugby.

For years the Kenyans were quite content with their outstanding sevens team that often holds its own in the World Sevens Series, but lately, it has dawned on the East Africans that the biggest stage in this sport is in the fifteens format — and the World Cup.

On the back of their sevens success, significant funding has also been directed towards the fifteens, a structure put in place, and targets — like the 2019 World Cup — set.

At the beginning of this year, a good six months before the World Cup qualification competition roars into life, Kenya had already named a squad to prepare for these important games.

And then when Zimbabwe appointed de Villiers in February to wide international media average befitting the profile of their new coach, the Kenyans were obviously watching, and knew they had to make a statement of intent of their own.

Kenya, who had parted ways with de Villiers’ fellow countryman Jerome Paarwater last December, moved to also unveil a new coach, who also has the gigantic task of breaking Namibia’s 19-year stranglehold on this continent’s sole World Cup qualification slot.

Not as high-profile as de Villiers, but New Zealander Ian Snook brings to Kenya a vast wealth of experience, having been coaching rugby since 1978.

A much-travelled journeyman, Snook has coached in New Zealand, Australia, England, Ireland, Laos, Japan, Croatia, Italy and South Africa.

To show that the Kenyans are prepared to move mountains to be in Japan next year, Snook has also been allowed to bring in his own assistant coach in the form of fellow New Zealander Murray Roulston, who once worked on the coaching staff of Super Rugby side Highlanders.

Kenya are not alone in East Africa in terms of taking their rugby to the next year.

Across the border in Uganda, the Cranes also believe they can make history by qualifying for Japan 2019.

To prepare themselves, the Ugandans have recently been hosting South African Barbarians, who beat them 39-29 and 22-8 in Kampala.

This is all very good groundwork by the East African neighbours. If you also add that Namibia have a full season in the SuperSport Rugby Challenge, and that the North Africans Tunisia and Morocco will also turn to their France-based big guns, we can this year expect competition and standards unseen before in African rugby.

Zimbabwe, meanwhile, have returned from week-long training camp at Falcon College in Esigodini, where a group of 26 players gelled well under the watchful eyes of de Villiers, his assistant Brendan Dawson and backline coach Stanley Raubenheimer.

Behind the scenes, the Zimbabwe Rugby Union (ZRU) is consulting widely to include in the qualification matches more top-class players plying their trade abroad — amid concerns that the bulk of the group taken to Falcon was not quite the right quality to finally break the 27-year World Cup jinx.

But former Harare Sports Club eighthman Derek Chiwara, who travelled to Falcon as acting team manager, said his experience with the team dispelled fears he also harboured.

“Few months ago I would have also said the same (that the players were not good enough),” said Chiwara.

“I realise they were not as bad as we thought. Guys just need that extra boost, good coaching, and Peter has brought that to the side. A lot of the players we thought were past their peak still have a lot more to offer. I would say out of the squad that was there, 14 to 15 will make the core.”

Chiwara was also delighted with the fluidity shown in drills during the course of the week.

“In the backline, in terms of open play, decision making, I think we are now a lot better than we have been in recent years. In the forwards, under (Brendan) Dawson, the guys are now understanding their role on the park.

Dawsie has been working with the forwards really hard. Now we have continuity in play, guys are working well to keep the ball recycled, keep the momentum. Also there’s now physicality in our game upfront. In the past it was just like ‘let’s wait for scrummage, let’s jump in the line-out’. Now there is the physical side of the game as well.”

Zimbabwe will open their campaign at home against Morocco on June 16.

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