African nations on the game's greatest stage

(ER 2015) Wednesday 25 June 2014
African nations on the game's greatest stage
Nelson Mandela hands the Webb Ellis Cup to Francois Pienaar at RWC 1995

The race for Rugby World Cup qualification resumes in Africa this weekend, with Kenya, Madagascar, Namibia and Zimbabwe set to compete for the continent’s one direct qualifier spot at RWC 2015.

All four teams will play each other at the Mahamasina Stadium in Madagascar between June 28 and July 6, with the top placed team set to book their place in Pool C alongside New Zealand, Argentina, Georgia and Tonga. The runner-up will then have an opportunity to secure the 20th and final berth at next year’s tournament through the Repechage.

Rugby is experiencing unprecedented levels of popularity in Africa, but with the exception of the continent’s traditional powerhouse, South Africa, no African side has managed to break the glass ceiling of the group stages at a Rugby World Cup.

In total, four teams have represented Africa on the Rugby World Cup stage since the tournament’s inception in 1987. We take a look back at how these sides fared on the game’s grandest stage and preview what lies ahead for the continent’s RWC 2015 hopefuls.

Zimbabwe make history

On May 23, 1987, Zimbabwe had the honour of becoming the first team to represent Africa in a Rugby World Cup. Despite being a relatively unknown quantity at the time, Zimbabwe gave a fine account of themselves in their opening match against Romania. The Sables produced an exhilarating attacking performance which resulted in three finely worked tries, but ultimately it was the Eastern European outfit that emerged victorious, carving out a 21-20 win at Eden Park in Auckland.

Zimbabwe’s last two pool phase matches pitted them against Scotland and France. While these fixtures provided invaluable experience against top opposition, Zimbabwe struggled to contain the explosive physical threat posed by two of Europe’s in-form sides, shipping 60 and 70 points against Scotland and France respectively.

Having been invited to participate in the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987, Zimbabwe earned their place at the next tournament by virtue of securing the continent’s only qualifier spot. The Sables found themselves in Pool 2 alongside Ireland, Scotland and Japan and, despite conceding over 50 points in each match, managed to cross the line twice on each occasion. RWC 1991 was to prove to be Zimbabwe’s last participation at a Rugby World Cup to date.

1995, a defining year

Returning to the international sporting arena after several decades in exile, 1995 is a year that every South Africa will remember fondly. Hosting the third Rugby World Cup on home soil – the first time that the tournament had ever been played entirely in one country - the Springboks wasted no time in stamping their authority on the game’s showcase event. After emerging unscathed from a group including Australia, Canada and Romania, the Springboks went on to eliminate Western Samoa and France in the knock-out stages.

The hosts eventually defeated pre-tournament favourites New Zealand 15-12 in the final in front of a rapturous 63,000-strong crowd at Ellis Park, and the image of Nelson Mandela presenting captain Francois Pienaar with the Webb Ellis Cup has gone on to become one of the game’s most iconic moments.

South Africa’s re-admission to the Rugby World Cup stage in 1995 kick-started a new era for rugby in the Rainbow Nation, and the Springboks have been a dominant force in world rugby ever since, lifting the Webb Ellis Cup on one further occasion and reaching at least the quarter finals on every occasion.

South Africa were not the only African side to make their Rugby World Cup debut in 1995. The Ivory Coast also participated in the tournament and, after a heavy opening defeat to Scotland, rallied to put in encouraging performances against France and Tonga, scoring tries in both matches. To date, this has been the Ivory Coast’s only appearance in a Rugby World Cup.

Namibia make their mark

RWC 1999 marked Namibia’s first appearance at a Rugby World Cup. The Welwitschias would go on to feature at the next three Rugby World Cups, but have yet to record their first win at the tournament. At RWC 1999, Namibia managed to score tries in all three of their pool phase matches against Fiji, France and Canada, but four years later found themselves on the wrong end of a 142-0 defeat at the hands of hosts Australia.

Perhaps Namibia’s most memorable Rugby World Cup performance came against Ireland at the Chaban Delmas Stadium in Bordeaux at RWC 2007. Trailing 27-3 with 59 minutes on the clock, Namibia rallied for the final quarter of the match and launched a series of devastating assaults on the Irish line to put the Welwitschias within 10 points of the Irish. But with just five minutes left, Jerry Flannery touched down in the corner for Ireland to put the match beyond doubt. Namibia may have failed to upset the applecart on that occasion, but they had won the respect of their opponents, the crowd, and the millions of rugby fans around the world watching on television.

At RWC 2011, Namibia racked up 25 points in their opening match against Fiji and then put in an equally impressive performance against Samoa. The Welwitschias suffered a heavy defeat in their last pool phase match against reigning world champions South Africa, but the signs of improvement were there for the world to see.

For over a decade, the Welwitschias have been Africa’s ‘other’ team, but Kenya, Madagascar and Zimbabwe now have the opportunity to end an era of Namibian dominance by taking the continent’s one direct qualifier spot next month.

The road ahead

The Confederation Africaine de Rugby (CAR) Championship - the regional qualification tournament for next year’s Rugby World Cup– has already produced some stunning moments, in particular, Madagascar’s astonishing 57-54 defeat of Namibia in front of a home crowd of more than 40,000.

Namibia may be the region’s traditional force in terms of Rugby World Cup qualification, but their rivals will all harbour hopes of qualifying for RWC 2015. Kenya will be buoyed by recent performances on the Sevens circuit, Madagascar will be hoping to capitalise on home advantage and Zimbabwe will be desperate to play in their first Rugby World Cup since 1991.