African nations dream of England 2015
The chance of remaining in contention for the next World Cup raises the stakes for this weekend's deciding Africa Cup matches in Botswana writes Ian Gilbert.
This weekend one African nation will take a big step on the road to the next Rugby World Cup.
Ivory Coast, Botswana, Mauritius, Nigeria and Zambia have been battling it out in the Africa Cup Division 1C, and Saturday sees the deciding matches take place.
Ivory Coast play Zambia and hosts Botswana take on Mauritius, with the top side gaining promotion to Division 1B and remaining in the qualification mix for England 2015.
The Ivorians competed in South Africa in 1995, but rugby has largely been in the shadow of football.
Confederation of African Rugby development officer Charles Yapo says: “Football in our country (Ivory Coast) is a true phenomenon without sporting parallel. Success for our (rugby) team at this Africa Cup will give us a true opportunity to develop and promote this sport.”
Ivory Coast’s participation in 1995 was bittersweet; wing Max Brito was seriously injured against Tonga, and the side endured heavy losses against Scotland and France.
In subsequent years rugby has struggled in a country devastated by civil war. The achievement of reaching a Rugby World Cup, however, is acknowledged.
“Locally, this participation remains alive in the overall memories among sporting and political personalities as it was the first time ever a national Ivory Coast team participated in a World Cup,” Yapo says.
Meanwhile, Botswana look to their powerhouse neighbours, South Africa, for inspiration.
“Most, if not all, our players follow South African rugby and our coaches are developed by South Africa,” says Botswana Rugby Union president Bob Lekan.
Botswana is establishing links with the South African Rugby Union - and the Blue Bulls in particular - while development sides are sent to Zimbabwe to play.
Ivory Coast, Botswana and Mauritius are all unbeaten in this tournament, and one could join the world’s elite in three years’ time.
“The participation of Ivory Coast at the 1995 RWC allowed the entire world to know about this little west African nation,” Yapo says.
Benefits of competition
The benefits of competing against top nations could extend beyond rugby.
“Our country, in its current rebuilding phase, is looking at options to create jobs in order to decrease youth unemployment and the creation of new professional rugby clubs could be a way to reach this goal,” Yapo says.
For Botswana, too, the benefits are clear. “It would give rugby in Botswana a facelift,” says Lekan. “Spectators will come back to the stadiums and possibly sponsors will want to associate with the game.”
Africa Cup Division 1C results
Mauritius 26-22 Nigeria
Botswana 23-15 Zambia
Ivory Coast 29-17 Nigeria