African Derby at the Rugby World Cup: A David and Goliath tale

Namibia Rugby Team 7s team warming up at the Telstra Dome |  creative commons

Namibia Rugby Team 7s team warming up at the Telstra Dome | creative commons

Of the twenty teams who are competing in this year’s edition of the Rugby World Cup, only two countries represent the African continent: two-time World Champions South Africa and their neighbours Namibia.

Coincidentally when the draw was made for the pool stages back in 2016, both teams were entered into pool B and this weekend they faced each other in the second round of the tournament. The result of the match was never in doubt, and the score line was predictably very one-sided, as South Africa (known as the Springboks) won by a margin of 54 points.

To put the result into real context though, it is best to look at the background of rugby in the Southern African region. Rugby, like many other sports in Africa, was a by-product of British colonisation in the 19th and 20th centuries. 

As British influence in the region spread from the Cape region into rural Southern Africa, rugby followed closely. By the time South Africa became an independent nation in 1910, the sport had already become a popular pastime, especially amongst the Afrikaner community. 

Rugby soon entered into Namibia following the end of the First World War, as the former German colony of South-West Africa was incorporated into the Union of South Africa in 1919. Internal South African migrants brought the game with them, and in 1955 the first team to represent Namibia was established as the South-West district.

For many years the team played in the South African domestic rugby competition, and even now the Namibian ‘Welwitschias’ team play in the second division of the annual Currie Cup.

Shortly after gaining independence from South Africa in 1990 following a 24-year civil war, Namibia joined the international rugby community and in the following year they beat international touring sides Italy and Ireland in the capital Windhoek. 

However due to the amateur nature of the game in the country, the lack of funding and the scarce number of players to choose from, Namibia have never won a match at the World Cup in 21 games and are the lowest ranked team in this year’s competition at 23rd. The Springboks on the other hand enter the tournament as one of the favourites to win the competition for what could be a third time.

To put into perspective the gulf - both in terms of size and rugby following – between South Africa and Namibia, here are some figures. Namibia’s population is currently 2.5 million; the Gauteng province in South Africa alone is over 12 million. South Africa has 650,000 registered rugby players across 1526 clubs; in contrast Namibia has just 9,300 players to pick from only 28 clubs. 

Of the 31 players selected to represent Namibia in the 2019 World Cup, only eight of them play as professionals with the rest occupying full-time jobs and having to commute vast distances to train and play. All of South Africa’s players, as you would expect, play rugby as a profession and many have lucrative contracts with European clubs. 

South Africa won by 54 points on Saturday, as they ran in 9 tries past the Namibian defences to move one step closer to a place in the quarter-final stages. When a team wins by such as margin in a rugby match, it is difficult to look for positives in the opposition’s performance. Yet, in comparison to the two previous meetings between the sides this was a much better result. 

In 2007 and 2011, the scores were 105-13 and 89-0 respectively. The Namibian side knew that victory would be an unlikely result, as such their main objective in the game was to restrict the margin of defeat. The Namibian players showed characteristic grit and resilience throughout the game, and there were a number of standout performances from amateur players in search of professional contracts in South Africa and further afield. 

Namibia’s games do not get any easier unfortunately as they come up against the current world champions, New Zealand, next week in what will most likely end in a similar defeat. In their final fixture of the tournament, however, they will be pursuing their first ever Rugby World Cup win as they face fellow tier-two competitors Canada. As for South Africa, they play Italy as they prepare – most likely – for more difficult games later on in the knockout stages of the tournament. 

In other Rugby World Cup news, host country Japan pulled off the biggest upset so far in the competition as they defeated the number one ranked side in the world, Ireland, by 19 points to 12. 

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Best of Africa.

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