World Cup expansion way to go

SO Namibia have qualified yet again for the World Cup as Africa’s sole representative (outside South Africa) at the William Webb Ellis Trophy.

By Enock Muchinjo

Peerless in Africa for close to two decades now, monopolising the continent’s single qualification slot since 1999, what should we expect, then, of Namibia at the finals next year?

Pretty much the same, if we are honest. Africa’s best will, by and large, go to Japan to make up the numbers.

New Zealand and South Africa will mostly likely give them a sound thrashing in Pool B.

The African champions could give Italy a good run for their money. Possibly they can notch up their first-ever World Cup win, in their sixth tournament appearance, against the yet-to-be-confirmed Repacharge qualifier.

Whatever the case, the stubborn reality is that Africa’s best is not quite good enough at rugby’s World Cup — the second biggest team event after the Fifa World Cup.

And it is hard to make sense of it, particularly so in an era where standards of African rugby seem to have gone up sharply over the last few years.

The Tests played in this year’s edition of the Africa Gold Cup showed the gap closing between the teams on the continent.

While some sides seemed to still lack structure in the way they play, it was enterprising rugby all the same, thoroughly watchable and quite a good advert for African rugby.
So why does a gap still exist between Africa (outside South Africa, of course) and the rest of the rugby-playing world?

The first thing is to recognise that apart from Namibia and Zimbabwe in the south of the continent, Kenya in the east, Ivory Coast (although they have gone backwards themselves) in the west as well as Tunisia and Morocco in the north, rugby has not really been an African sport. But it has been coming up, slowly but surely, and as the competition and numbers would seem to suggest this past season, rugby is probably the fastest growing team sport on the continent.

Under the circumstances, it is extremely illogical that after years of hard work inside four years and then hard-fought Tests in the qualification year, only one African team goes to the World Cup via the qualification route. It is refreshing, though, that World Rugby is taking a pragmatic approach to promoting the sport across the world with plans to expand the number of teams at the World Cup beginning in 2023.

Unlike cricket — which has senselessly cut its own World Cup to the detriment of teams like Zimbabwe, Ireland and Scotland — rugby has chosen to grow its market and a diversity of countries from different parts of the globe at the World Cup is a wonderful starting point.

Look at Kenya, for example. You really have to feel for the East Africans. After investing quite significantly into their rugby and preparing in the professional manner they did, they ought to have qualified for the 2015 World Cup in England. They had done almost enough by beating Namibia in the qualification tournament in Madagascar in 2014 and anyone who achieves that seemingly impossible task deserve to go to the World Cup. But it was Zimbabwe who played party spoilers on Kenya, but then the Sables came short of the crucial bonus point in that match to book a place at England 2015. And it was the Namibians, who do not need favours, who benefited and they were on their way to a fifth straight World Cup.

Kenya were a solid unit again this just-ended qualification season although, unlike in 2015, Namibia restored factory settings and comfortably defeated the East Africans in a winner-take-all final contest for Africa’s sole World Cup spot.

The dream is still alive though for the Kenyans, but through a much more difficult task now, via a Repacharge.

But watch out for the Repacharge, I am certainly looking forward to it. Teams like Germany and Hong Kong — who have made quick progress in recent years — will be involved. Alongside Kenya, one of these three sides could qualify for their first-ever Rugby World Cup in Japan next year.

All this points to the growth of rugby across the world. Hopefully, World Rugby will walk the talk on the most noble idea of a bigger World Cup.

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