On July 6 in the Africa Cup CAR Division 1 qualifier in Antananarivo, Namibia scored an emphatic 89-10 victory over Madagascar to sneak ahead of Zimbabwe and Kenya on points difference and into their fifth successive World Cup, where they will take on the mighty All Blacks as well as Argentina, Tonga and Georgia in Pool C.
Just eight days earlier, Namibia’s campaign looked set to end in tears of sadness as a shock 29-22 defeat at the hands of Kenya left their hopes of qualifying for the 2015 World Cup hanging by the slimmest of threads.
But by 5pm on July 6, the Namibian rugby team were crying tears of joy at the Mahamasina Stadium as their extraordinary victory over the hosts had booked their spot in England 2015.
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.
For Zimbabwe, who showed encouraging improvement through the year, there was a second chance in the form of the repechage, but they went down 15-23 to Russia in Krasnoyarsk.
Director of Rugby Liam Middleton left for Canada shortly thereafter and by mid-November there was yet to be a taker to replace him. But the Sables enjoyed something of a renaissance in 2014, boosted by the presence of former Natal Sharks and Lions SuperRugby flyhalf Guy Cronje.
Kenya will look back on their year with some frustration as they struggled with consistency. They managed to beat Namibia, but lost to Zimbabwe; they lost 14-21 to Uganda, only to beat the same team 34-0 the next weekend.
They will need to develop more consistency – which will come with playing more often – if they are to follow their Sevens team up the world rankings. Under the guidance of former Western Province loose forward Jerome Paarwater, they also competed in the Vodacom Cup, which was a valuable exercise for them.
They will also need to clear their team of doping allegations that were made by a Kenyan governmental task force.
While playing enough internationals is always a challenge for the African sides, Namibia have been able to fill their calendar ahead of the World Cup, playing Germany, Canada, the French Barbarians and Portugal after returning from their Madagascan triumph.
The last three games were on an invaluable year-end tour to Europe, giving the Welwitschia’s the chance to experience Northern Hemisphere conditions ahead of the World Cup and test their depth.
Namibia also hope to be invited to the IRB Nations Cup in Romania as African champions, which could result in another four matches, while home Tests against Zimbabwe and Kenya are also planned for 2015.
The Namibian Rugby Union are also in talks with SARU about their possible participation in the Vodacom Cup in the first half of 2015.
Germany were comfortably beaten, 58-20, in Windhoek, in a match that marked Free State Cheetahs hooker Torsten van Jaarsveld’s first game in Namibian colours.
Vermeulen was able to call on a dozen overseas-based players through the year, with Pumas flank Renaldo Bothma (recently signed by the Sharks) outstanding in the World Cup qualifier in Madagascar, while Jacques Burger, the stoical grafter of the Saracens loose trio, played for Namibia for the first time since September 2011 when he led the team against Canada at Colwyn Bay in northern Wales.
Fullback Chrysander Botha, who played SuperRugby for the Lions and was then signed by the Exeter Chiefs, was one of the stars of the backline before his year ended with a broken leg in the 13-17 loss to Canada.
The likes of flank Rohan Kitshoff and prop Jaco Engels, both stalwarts of the South African domestic scene, also added their experience and quality to the Welwitschias.
The dissent which plagued Namibian rugby around the time of the previous World Cup is now in the past.
“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.
An IRB report also praised Namibian rugby, saying: “Governance, administration and finances can be used as an example for many unions in the world “.
The IRB’s regional manager for Africa, Jean-Luc Barthes, said in his report that “I met responsible and very professional people who want to properly manage their activities and make rugby the number one sport in the country.“
The plaudits kept coming when they were named sports team of the year, Vermeulen won coach of the year and De Beer administrator of the year at the Namibian Sports Commission Annual Awards.
To add to the feel-good factor, the U19 team won the Confederation of African Rugby’s tournament hosted in Windhoek in September to qualify for the IRB Junior Trophy competition in Portugal in 2015.