As Kenya draft in Sevens World Series stars to spearhead their attack, injured Namibia captain Jacques Burger believes this year’s Africa Division 1A tournament is ‘too close to call’ with the race to compete at England 2015 starting in earnest on Saturday.
Rugby-mad Madagascar is all set to provide the setting for Africa’s eagerly-anticipated Rugby World Cup qualifying tournament in Antananarivo from 28 June – 6 July.
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African title holders Kenya face Rugby World Cup veterans Namibia on the first match day, while Zimbabwe will play the hosts Madagascar, each bidding to go forward as Africa 1 and join world champions New Zealand, Argentina, Tonga and Georgia in Pool C.
“A lot of people don’t want the favourites tag but Namibia have qualified for the previous four tournaments and I think that things are slightly in our favour,” said Jacques Burger, the injured captain of Namibia, who only won back promotion to Africa’s top flight by taking the Division 1B title in 2013.
“The level of rugby is very equal between the four teams. We should go in there confident but not arrogant, and also be realistic about it,” added Burger, whose side is ranked 22 in the world, 11 places above Kenya, eight above Zimbabwe and 13 clear of Madagascar.
“These qualifiers are going to be absolutely massive for Kenya, Madagascar and Zimbabwe and will be great for the development of the game in their countries. It may still be an amateur set-up, but rugby is improving in Africa and qualifying for a Rugby World Cup would be a wonderful achievement for any of these teams.”
Kenya look to Sevens stars
Namibia’s toughest test could well be their first against a Kenya squad strengthened by the inclusion of five stars from the HSBC Sevens World Series. Called up into the Simbas’ 26-man squad are Humphrey Kayange, his brother Collins Injera – third on the IRB Sevens’ all-time try scorers’ list -Sevens skipper Andrew Amonde, leading Kenya Sevens points scorer Lavin Asego and Patrice Agunda. All have appeared in a Sevens Rugby World Cup before and are now attempting to do the same in the 15s format.
Namibia have come out on top in five of their six previous meetings, most recently winning 55-35 in Windhoek in November, but the Kenyans will be confident.
“Kenya are the current holders of the African Cup. But we must up our game in Antananarivo if we are to qualify to the World Cup for the first time,” said Jerome Paarwater, Kenya’s South African-born head coach. “The team has just come back from a one-week high-altitude training camp in Nanyuki where we worked hard on putting the players through the conditioning they need to be competitive against the professional teams such as Namibia and Zimbabwe.”
Hosts start against Zimbabwe
While Zimbabwe are bidding to make it a hat-trick of appearances at the Rugby World Cup, having appeared in the first two tournaments in 1987 and 1991, for Madagascar if remains the holy grail.
The Zimbabweans will have plenty of experience to call upon when they name their starting line-up for the opening match against Madagascar, with players such as Durban-based Simba Mandiona, Denford Mutamangira and Danny Robertson recalled to their ranks.
Were Madagascar to pull off a victory in front of their impassioned support, they could jump four places to 31st in the world rankings. Win or lose, though, the tournament will be a special one for the people of Madagascar as the Rugby World Cup 2015 Trophy Tour coincides with the qualifier, giving the opportunity for fans to see the iconic Webb Ellis Cup up close and personal, to engage with a programme of special activities and to Get into Rugby.
“We are delighted to be showcasing the passion, strength and growth of African Rugby to a global audience and look forward to what promises to be a compelling and competitive tournament. Whoever qualifies for England 2015 will do the African Region proud and inspire further participation growth,” said Confederation Africaine de Rugby President, Aziz Bougja.
CAR Division 1A Fixtures (local time)
Saturday 28 June 2014: Kenya v Namibia – 1.00pm; Madagascar v Zimbabwe – 3.00pm
Wednesday 2 July 2014: Namibia v Zimbabwe – 1.00pm; Madagascar v Kenya – 3.00pm
Sunday 6 July 2014: Kenya v Zimbabwe – 1.00pm; Madagascar v Namibia – 3.00pm
Madagascar: A love affair with rugby
The world’s fourth largest island – a former French colony – is fanatical about the sport and crowds of over 40,000 watched the first stage of African RWC qualifying last year. The same levels of support, if not higher given the prize at stake are expected over the next week or so.