This year’s Rugby Africa Cup will kick-off in Marseille on Friday evening when Namibia take on Burkina Faso at Stade Delort before Zimbabwe face Ivory Coast at the same venue.
Operating in a straight knockout format, the tournament will continue in Aix-en-Provence on Saturday as Uganda play Kenya and Senegal come up against Algeria.
The winners of those matches will progress to the semi-finals on Wednesday, which will decide the identity of the teams that will contest Sunday’s final at Stade Maurice David.
With one automatic qualification spot at RWC 2023 up for grabs in France, it means that the victorious team must win three matches in less than 10 days to take their place in Pool A as Africa 1 next year.
The losing finalist will still have a chance to secure their ticket to RWC 2023 through the Final Qualification Tournament.
However, there is no second chance for those teams knocked out at the quarter- or semi-final stage, meaning none of the teams will be taking anything for granted this week.
That is especially true when you consider that only two nations – Senegal and Zimbabwe – emerged unbeaten from the Rugby Africa Cup pool stage last July.
Namibia, bidding to reach their seventh successive Rugby World Cup this week, lost to Ivory Coast while Kenya, who are the third highest competing nation on the World Rugby Men’s Rankings powered by Capgemini, suffered a one-point defeat to Senegal.
“It shifts the mindset completely because there are no second chances. Last year we got caught cold against Senegal in the first game and lost by one point, 20-19 [but] thankfully, we still had a second chance,” Kenya coach Paul Odera told World Rugby.
“Knockout rugby changes the mindset completely. The focus at training really has been on getting the players to do what they're meant to do the first time over.
“Because in knockout rugby, you have one error from the scrum-half and then maybe an error from the second-row and another error from the full-back and they all add up. If those errors are at crucial moments in the game, you can suddenly find yourselves chasing a game.
“Then you get under pressure and then you start making [more] errors and before you know it, the game's over and you are out of the tournament.
“So, we are very clear that we've got to fire on all cylinders right from the beginning of the match and for the full 80 minutes.”
“It would change the game forever”
Should Kenya beat Uganda on Saturday then the Simbas could get a shot at revenge against Senegal, if they defeat Algeria in the fourth quarter-final.
Most of the Kenya squad has been together for 12 weeks, having represented the Simbas in South Africa’s Currie Cup First Division. That group has been supplemented by sevens players, including veteran star Collins Injera.
The Zimbabwe Goshawks were also in that competition, finishing a place and six points below the Simbas in the standings, and that preparation has clearly worked for their national team.
Zimbabwe warmed up for the Rugby Africa Cup with a 30-7 win against the Netherlands in Amsterdam last weekend that propelled them up the Rankings to 27th.
Namibia, meanwhile, have spent the past few weeks in Stellenbosch in South Africa, the team’s training camp culminating in a 43-21 defeat to Italy A there last Friday.
Attention now shifts to the south of France where one African team will earn the right to play the hosts, New Zealand, Italy and Uruguay in France next year. Odera has no doubt what qualification would mean to Kenyan rugby.
“I think it would change the game forever in Kenya. Not just due to the increased interest and increased financing but for the country, for the players, for the grassroots,” he added.
“Our sevens team has done well, and they've also commercially positioned Kenya Rugby in a good place where corporations have seen the team as an opportunity.
“But if the Simbas do qualify for Rugby World Cup in France next year, it will change the game forever in Kenya for the better.
“And I think from there, Kenya can build on this result, and we'll finally be able maybe to fulfill the potential of Kenya Rugby to compete with the elite teams in the world of rugby.
“So, it would be huge… I’m driven to tears when I think about what it could change.”