The battle to be the top team in the African region - excluding South Africa – gets underway this weekend with the launch of the Africa Gold Cup.
A one-year moratorium on relegation and the decision to promote two teams from the second-tier has resulted in an expanded six-team competition, formerly known as Africa Cup Division 1A.
Zimbabwe enjoyed a stay of execution despite finishing bottom in 2016, while Division 1B runners-up Tunisia won promotion to the top flight alongside champions Senegal.
Tunisia sit out the opening weekend, as do defending champions Namibia. Uganda and Kenya, the last team other than Namibia to win the competition, in 2013, make up the rest of the six-team line-up.
The competition now runs over seven rounds, giving the likes of Senegal more game time in a competitive environment.
SENEGAL WELCOME NEW FORMAT
“This new format is most welcome. Our national team used to only play twice a year and that was restrictive for development. Now they’ll play five matches in an organised and managed fixture list,” said long-time Senegal manager Mamadou Fofana.
“Coming together for two months will also enable us to assess player performance and widen our selection process. We want to give as many people as possible a chance to play for the country.”
Senegal’s capital city Dakar will stage matches against Zimbabwe and Uganda this week and next and Fofana says excitement has been building.
“A huge communication campaign was set up to ensure full media coverage and a lot of promotional work has taken place within the schools and through the World Rugby Get Into Rugby programme since the fixtures were announced,” he said.
“It is an honour to receive such a competition. The FSR (Federation of Senegal Rugby) will make all necessary arrangements to offer the best welcome to Zimbabwe and Uganda.
“Of course, it is a challenge, and we will organise it according to the famous Senegalese teranga (hospitality) in the values and spirit of rugby.”
ELGON CUP DECIDER
Nairobi has the honour of staging the first Saturday's two matches as Kenya prepare to face Uganda for the second time in the space of a fortnight. As well as playing for crucial Gold Cup points, the game doubles as an Elgon Cup decider.
Kenya take a 23-18 lead into the second leg of the annual contest and will start as heavy favourites to claim their 10th Elgon Cup title given their superior ranking of 25th compared to the Rugby Cranes’ 45th.
Simbas coach Jerome Paarwater makes two changes to the side that won in Uganda, with starts for Newcastle Falcons back-row Joshua Chisanga, the first Kenya to get a full-time contract in the English Premiership, and fly-half Isaac Adimo.
Captain Darwin Mukidza, who played a starring role in the first leg win, made no attempt to hide his side’s intentions. “We’re hoping to win quick ball at the breakdown and get it out to our backs who have electric pace," he said.
Meanwhile, Uganda’s South African-born head coach John Duncan expects another close encounter
“I think it’s going to be a tight affair. Any contest, any derby between two neighbours is always going to be tough game,” he said.
“There is a lot of history involved in this game and I think both teams will go full out to win the game. Everyone wants to start off with a win and get points in the bank.
“With Kenya being the favourites, we can expect them to come out firing but it’s up to us to meet them."
The Gold Cup forms part of the RWC 2019 qualification process with the winner in 2018 booking their place at Japan 2019 as Africa 1, where they will be in Pool B alongside back-to-back world champions New Zealand, double winners South Africa, Italy and the repechage winner.
The side that finishes bottom of this year’s competition will be relegated to the Silver Cup and eliminated from RWC 2019 qualification.