Namibia’s failure to win a first ever match at the Rugby World Cup put a dampener on an otherwise productive rugby season that saw the game well entrenched and growing at grassroots level.
Namibia underlined their status as Africa’s second best nation behind world champions South Africa by qualifying for their seventh successive world cup, but after heightened expectations they ultimately fell short again.
Their preparation for the world cup was promising at the Nations Cup in Uruguay in July, when they recorded two narrow losses, 34-27 to an Argentina XV and 26-18 to Uruguay, before concluding with a come from behind 28-26 victory over Chile.
With Uruguay also drawn in the same group as Namibia for the world cup, their showdown in Montevideo on 5 August was an important marker for the world cup and despite losing the match, the Welwitschias showed enough promise, suggesting they could beat the South Americans on neutral ground.
In a match of fluctuating fortunes, Namibia overturned a 12-0 deficit to take a 13-12 lead early in the second half, but Uruguay struckback to go 26-13 ahead, before Danco Burger added a spectacular try in the closing stages.
Divan Rossouw and Wian Conradie also scored tries, and with the forwards matching Uruguay in the setpieces and the backs playing an expansive, attacking game, their performance raised hopes for a debut world cup win under former Springbok coach Allister Coetzee.
The world cup in France, though, was an anticlimax.
After being outplayed by Italy, who beat them 52-8 in their opening match on 9 September, Namibia slumped to a 71-3 defeat to New Zealand six days later, followed by a record 96-0 defeat to France on 21 September.
Those defeats were maybe expected, but the showdown against Uruguay in Lyon on 27 September would be Namibia’s actual world cup – the match that they had been targetting from the start to get a first win.
But after a promising start, things unravelled spectacularly for Namibia.
Gerswin Mouton raced through to score the first try after barely a minute and another by JC Greyling after a great pickup saw Namibia streaking into a 14-0 lead after only 12 minutes.
Uruguay replied with two tries of their own, but Tiaan Swanepoel added three more penalties and with Namibia leading 23-12 early in the second half it looked like they were on track for a first-ever world cup victory.
It was not to be, however, as the momentum swung to Uruguay, while indiscipline led to Namibia’s downfall.
First Aranos Coetzee was yellow-carded for collapsing the scrum, and when captain Tjuee Uanivi and Des Sethie also received yellow cards for illegal tackles within two minutes of each other, Namibia’s hopes went up in smoke.
Down to 13 men at a stage, they battled on courageously, but the odds were too great and Uruguay exploited the widening gaps to seal a 10-point victory.
It was a huge disappointment, especially the manner of their defeat, having to fight on with only 13 men, and had indiscipline not cost them, one had the feeling that they could have won the match if they had 15 men on the field throughout.
But instead, another defeat at the world cup was chalked down in the record books and the long wait continues.
At local level, the game is well entrenched and continues to grow throughout the country, while Trustco United became the Namibian Premier League champions for the first time in four years when they beat arch-rivals FNB Wanderers 30-29 in a thrilling final on 2 September.
In a hard-fought encounter, Wanderers seemed to be heading for victory when they led 29-20 with three minutes to go, but a late try by Reinold Benade, and a conversion and penalty by his brother Renier gave United the title by the narrowest of margins.
It was onlly their second title over the past ten years, and underlined the great strides that their young team had made over the past few years.
Wanderers outscored United by four tries to three, but they conceded too many penalties, and Renier Benade made them pay, as he added 15 points with the boot to lead United to a stirring victory.
There was also great joy for FNB Grootfontein who beat FNB Kudus 42-40 in a nailbiting Reserve League final, while FNB Unam ruled the roost in the Women’s League after thumping Trustco United 47-3 in the final on 2 September. Unam winger Yvonne Kooper was the star of the show, scoring five tries as Unam ran United ragged to post a resounding victory.
The women’s game saw significant growth in 2023 with seven teams from Windhoek, Rehoboth, Walvis Bay and Grootfontein participating in a league format for the first time.
At junior level, there is concern though, after Namibia failed to qualify for the Junior Rugby World Cup for the fifth year in a row.
At the African qualifying tournament, the Barthes Cup in Kenya, Namibia beat Zambia 20-12 in their opening match, but then stumbled to a 24-13 defeat to Kenya.
Namibia eventually finished third after beating Tunisia 25-20 after extra time, while Zimbabwe won the the title after beating Kenya 28-7 in the final.
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