By 5pm on July 6, at the same Mahamasina Stadium, the Namibian rugby team were crying tears of joy as an extraordinary 89-10 victory over the hosts had booked their spot in England 2015 on points difference over Zimbabwe and Kenya.
Following that opening-day loss, just their second against the East Africans since 2006, results had fallen Namibia’s way to keep their hopes alive. The Welwitschias beat Zimbabwe 24-20 to stay in contention, while their fellow Southern Africans did them a favour by overcoming Kenya 28-10 on the final day.
Crucially, neither Zimbabwe nor Kenya managed to get a bonus point in that match, which left Namibia needing to beat Madagascar by 53 points to qualify for the finals of the global showpiece.
“We were down in the dumps up to the last day, but we just believed until the very end. We had the will to keep on fighting until our last breath, until all 15 of us had to be carried off the field if necessary,” flank Tinus du Plessis said after the triumph.
“We had a massive points difference to work on, so we just planned to take it 10 minutes at a time. It’s amazing to think that we’ll now be playing our first match against the All Blacks!” the London Wasps player said after Namibia had earned a berth in Pool C of the World Cup with New Zealand, Argentina, Tonga and Georgia.
The CAR Division 1A doubled up as the Africa Cup and Namibia’s three games there more than doubled the number of Tests they had played since November 2013. One of the biggest problems facing developing African rugby nations is the lack of internationals they play and coach Danie Vermeulen used matches against the Blue Bulls and Western Province in Windhoek to prepare for Namibia’s most important games in four years.
An after-the-hooter penalty by Theuns Kotze – one of six he kicked to go with a conversion – gave Namibia a 30-28 victory over a youthful Western Province side, who had outscored the Welwitschias by three tries to two.
The following week, Namibia were beaten 34-13 by a powerful Bulls outfit. It was a highly physical encounter, in which the Bulls only pulled away in the second half, and Namibia Rugby Union CEO Sybrand de Beer believes his team were perhaps still affected by it when they played Kenya in Madagascar seven days later.
“We didn’t play the way we should of against Kenya and I think the Blue Bulls game took a lot out of the team. They were just not in the moment and we beat ourselves really. It meant World Cup qualification was no longer in our own control, which makes it difficult, we had to rely on other results,” De Beer said.
Two tries in the first 10 minutes by wing Heinrich Smit gave Namibia a great start, and they led 22-19 going into the final quarter, but in trying to keep the strong-finishing Kenyans out, they conceded a raft of penalties and a fourth try and crucial bonus point to start their campaign on a poor note.
Zimbabwe were trying to qualify for their first World Cup since 1991, as well as ending a six-game losing streak against the Welwitschias, who were forced to overturn a 10-17 half-time deficit.
The Sables, boosted by the presence of former Natal Sharks and Gauteng Lions SuperRugby flyhalf Guy Cronje, used their dangerous backs to score the opening try, but Namibia relied on their dominant forwards to rumble their way to a penalty try.
But Zimbabwe’s backs conjured another try just before half-time and a second Cronje penalty stretched their lead to 20-10, forcing Namibia to make a determined comeback in the second half.
Flank Renaldo Bothma, after a great break by replacement hooker Dian Wiese, and fellow loose forward Rohan Kitshoff, from a rolling maul, scored tries converted by Kotze to keep their World Cup hopes alive.
Namibia had to defend stoutly for the last 10 minutes as PJ van Lill was sent to the sin-bin, but they did so to give them a faint chance of progressing.
Against Madagascar, it was the chance for Namibia’s attacking play to shine and, although their forwards dominated from the outset, it took the Welwitschias 12 minutes to stamp their mark on proceedings with centre Johan Deysel’s opening try.
Two more tries, superb long-range efforts by wing David Philander and Exeter Chiefs bound fullback Chrysander Botha, were scored before the end of the first quarter and an outstanding first half saw Namibia go into the break 63-0 up and firmly back in World Cup contention.
Experienced props Johnny Redelinghuys and Jaco Engels both scored tries, while the explosive Bothma scored twice, Philander completed his brace and there was a penalty try as well.
Further tries by Kotze, left wing Johan Tromp, a third by Bothma and another penalty try were the knockout blow for Zimbabwe and Kenya.
It was a moment of great joy for Namibia and a sign that they are past the dissent which plagued rugby in their country around the time of the previous World Cup.
“Rugby in Namibia was quite badly hit in 2011 when the exco resigned and technically we were insolvent. But the latest financial statements have been declared clean and passed without any qualifications and there is good governance and the basic foundation in place. We are now back to concentrating on rugby,” De Beer said.
Namibia’s U20s finished sixth in the Junior World Trophy in Hong Kong, beating 2013 finalists Canada and suffering narrow defeats to eventual winners Japan and Uruguay.
For a country with a small playing base, development is crucial and the IRB’s Get Into Rugby program is reaching tens of thousands of schoolchildren all over the vast south-west African country.
The continuation of the Windhoek Lager Tri-Nations Series is a major benefit for the national team and in November 2013 they saw off two of their major rivals for World Cup qualification, Zimbabwe, 35-26, and Kenya, 55-35.
Looking ahead to World Cup year, the inclusion of Namibia in South Africa’s Vodacom Cup competition (the level below SuperRugby) will obviously benefit preparations, while De Beer and Vermeulen have their eyes set on the acquisition of more players, such as Free State Cheetahs captain Torsten van Jaarsveld and Sharks star Anton Bresler, the lock who has moved to Scotland but was in the peripheral vision of the Springbok selectors.
Bothma, one of the stars of the Mpumalanga Pumas’ Currie Cup Premier Division campaign, is one of the newly-qualified Namibian players and he excelled in Madagascar.
Three matches in Europe in November 2014, against Canada, French Barbarians and Portugal, should ensure the further growth of this resurgent Namibian team.