The Rugby World Cup enters the knockout stages this weekend with some enticing match-ups in store, but Namibia’s Welwitschias have already returned home after their campaign ended in familiar fashion.
Despite competing at their seventh consecutive world cup, Namibia once again lost all their matches and now after 26 matches over 24 years they are still searching for their first win at the global showpiece.
They suffered some heavy defeats, going down 52-8 to Italy and 71-3 to New Zealand before a record 96-0 defeat to France on 21 September. Those defeats against Tier One rugby nations may have been expected, but their defeat against fellow Tier Two nation, Uruguay, was a bitter pill to swallow. Namibia got off to a great start, leading 23-12 early in the second half, but indiscipline cost them as they received three yellow cards for high tackles and playing with only 13 men at a stage, the momentum shifted to Uruguay who went on to win the match 36-26.
Namibia Rugby Union vice president Johan Diergaardt, who accompanied the team to France said it was an unforgettable experience, but conceded that their performances were disappointing.
“It was a phenomenal event, but I have to say that our performances were disappointing. But we can’t blame the players or coaching staff – they did their best, and we must all take responsibility for it,” he said.
“I believe that they did well under the circumstances, but there is room for improvement and we have to look into the overall position of Namibian rugby,” he added.
Namibia’s huge defeats to France and New Zealand, as well as some other lopsided results like Romania’s defeats to Ireland (82-8), South Africa (76-0) and Scotland (84-0), or Chile’s 71-0 defeat to England, resulted in some commentators saying that Tier 2 nations should not compete against Tier 1 nations at the Rugby World Cup, but Diergaardt disagreed.
“We were not invited to the world cup, we qualified through Africa, so we deserved to be there. Some people say that we were no competition for France and New Zealand, but they are amongst the top five countries in the world and both can win the tournament, so I don’t agree that we don’t belong there,” he said.
A telling feature to back up his argument was the tremendous support that Tier 2 nations received from rugby fans, with all of Namibia’s matches being well-attended. Close to 50 000 fans turned up for their match against fellow minnows Uruguay in Lyon.
“We can only dream about that in Namibia. Being part of such a big occasion for our players was a dream come true, so why would someone want to take that away from them,” Diergaardt said.
Namibia’s results were later put into a more positive light when Tier 1 nation Italy also suffered heavy defeats against New Zealand (96-17) and France (60-7), but at the same time, some other Tier 2 nations, and specifically Portugal, gave some superb performances.
Competing at only their second world cup and first one in 16 years, they rose to the occasion, beating Fiji 24-23 and drawing 18-18 against Georgia, a match they could have won had it not been for a last minute missed penalty. Samoa nearly provided the upset of the tournament when they suffered a narrow 18-17 defeat to England, after leading for most of the match and then picking up a yellow card and being reduced to 14 men in the closing stages.
This led to some commentators accusing referees of being unconsciously biased against Tier 2 nations, while Namibia’s defeat to Uruguay, when they were reduced to 13 men, also drew criticism for the referees’ strict interpretation of the rules, with the New Zealand website stuff.co.nz saying it had robbed spectators of a great contest.
“Namibia was denied one of its best chances to break what is now a 26-match Rugby World Cup duck … it has taken the edge off what could have been the most interesting Rugby World Cup ever staged,” it said.
It, however, added that the referees’ strict interpretation was “a direct outcome of rugby authorities facing legal action for player head injuries that cause early onset of dementia”.
“It has resulted in an overbearing but ineffectual crackdown of an aspect of the game that constitutes the game itself – contact,” it added.
Stronger competition needed
Be that as it may, Namibia is still in search of a first win at the world cup and many commentators, as well as coach Allister Coetzee have emphasised the need to play more regularly against stronger competition.
Even World Rugby has been discussing the idea of changing its global calendar to include a new two-tier international tournament, with an initial meeting being held in June, while a follow-up was due to take place this month, but to date not much has happened.
Part of the reason has been the lack of financial incentives for Tier One nations, as Portugal’s coach Patrice Lagisquet was quoted as saying by the BBC:
“The Tier One nations cannot play two, three or four matches in a row against Tier Two nations and that’s what these nations would need. In rugby, one needs to play against high-level teams to flourish. I would say the great nations need to make money and to fill the stadium,” he said.
Furthermore, Tier One nations have reportedly not been keen on the proposed tournament’s aim of promotion and relegation between the two tiers, while other issues like player welfare and the release of players by clubs for international fixtures have also been stumbling blocks during negotiations.
Coetzee emphasised the need for more competition at a higher level: “The big thing for me of Namibian rugby is the lack of competition – you cannot rely on club rugby only,” he was quoted as saying by the BBC, while Diergaardt concurred.
“We need to play more high-intensity matches if we want to improve. It doesn’t mean that we have to play against Tier One nations all the time, that won’t be possible, but at least we need to play more tests against Tier Two nations,” Diergaardt said.
“Tier One nations have tournaments like the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship, while the difference between us and Portugal, Georgia and Romania is that they compete in a Tier 2 European competition while we don’t have anything. Tier 2 nations in South America are now also competing in a franchise competition there, so we need something similar, where we can play at a higher level, while having more game time and building a team culture,” he said.
The lack of adequate funding has also been a problem according to Diergaardt.
He refuted claims circulating on YouTube that Namibia received seven million pounds from World Rugby this year.
“I want to be totally transparent about this: In a world cup year like this year we received 600 000 pounds (about N$14 million from World Rugby, while we received 250 000 pounds (N$5,9 million) last year, and next year we will receive 350 000 (N$8,2 million) pounds after they increased our grant. We also received N$16 million from our government, and some more from sponsors, while our total budget was about N$38 million. But you can’t compare that to say South Africa’s budget of R274 million, and it’s clear that we cannot compete on equal terms,” he added.
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