Thrust into the spotlight just three months out from Rugby World Cup 2015 after Danie Vermeulen decided to step down from his position as head coach, Phil Davies grasped the opportunity to lead Namibia into the tournament with both hands.
Ultimately the Welwitschias fell just short of their goal of winning their first-ever Rugby World Cup match but under Davies' stewardship they broke a number of other records and came out of the tournament with their heads held high, despite the limited timeframe the 52-year-old and his assistants, Wayne Proctor and Pieter Rossouw, had at their disposal in preparing the players for a pool that contained defending champions New Zealand, Argentina, Georgia and Tonga.
“We went through an introduction phase of how we wanted to play, then an experimental phase, a confirmation phase and the World Cup itself was the actual performance phase. It was all very short notice but we kept it simple and I think that helped,” explained Davies.
“Once my role changed to include head coach we looked at key areas such as selection criteria and strength and conditioning programmes and how we could put all the mental, physical, tactical and technical aspects of rugby together to get up to the level of performance we needed to be at for the World Cup.
“It helped having test matches to focus on. World Rugby do a brilliant job in helping tier two nations and they organised a series for us against Russia, which was very good as they were a higher-ranked team at the time and we managed to beat them for the first time in our history. And then we had the Africa Cup. In the breaks in between the tests we were able to evaluate our development as a group and address any issues.
“We also went into the Springbok camp and trained against them in Durban which was a fantastic experience.”
Namibia secured their first-ever point at Rugby World Cup when Georgia beat them by the narrowest of margins (17-16) in the Pool C encounter at Sandy Park in Exeter on 7 October, and they also scored more tries in England (eight) than in their two previous tournament appearances combined.
Johan Deysel’s try in the 58-14 defeat to the All Blacks at The Stadium, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park brought about one of the biggest cheers at RWC 2015 as well as the broadest of smiles to the face of Davies, who hopes to be "grinning when Namibia are winning" in Japan in four years’ time.
“If we can get a consistent text calendar over the next three to four years it’ll hopefully give us an opportunity to qualify for the next World Cup earlier which will obviously be beneficial in terms of our preparation. The aim will then be to try and build on what we have achieved in England and have a more successful World Cup.
“We have to look at where we are now, what it took us to get us there and what we need to do to improve and what our goals are moving into the next four-year cycle. For Namibia that may be going from 20th in the world to 16th.”
It is doubtful that any of the on-field gains clearly visible in the Welwitschias’ performances at RWC 2015 would have been possible without the measures Davies and his team had put in place in the months leading up to the tournament.
Originally brought in to help the Namibian Rugby Union as a World Rugby-funded technical advisor, Davies saw the creation of a High Performance Centre as one of his immediate priorities when he first took office in November 2014.
“We didn’t even have a gym at the start of the year. We had lots of equipment but nothing centralised in one area so we set about trying to find the right facility," the former Wales international said.
“In the end we used the building at the end of the stadium, which has had many guises over the years including a nightclub and even a church.
“It is a great facility with a massive floor space and it had a kitchen which meant we could feed the players on the same site.
“Then it was about creating a programme for the players to come in every day and to do strength and conditioning at the right level. A lot of the local players, who made up about 60 per cent of our wider training squad, hadn’t been subjected to a robust weight training programme before the high performance facility was up and running in February.
"We want to have 35-40 players who either have professional or semi-professional experience as well as growing the domestic club game in Namibia."
“We also implemented an analysis system and monitoring system to measure the player’s performance whereas before it was all very subjective; it was about creating measurable programmes for the players to develop and for them to understand that they were getting closer to the level that they needed to be at for the World Cup.”
Next amongst the Welshman’s many tasks is to strengthen and increase the player pool available for national team selection - there are only 1,2000 players currently playing the game - and to oversee the development of a much more clearly defined player pathway.
“Currently we have four full-time professionals playing abroad – two in Europe and two in Super Rugby in South Africa – and some semi-professionals. We want to have 35-40 players who either have professional or semi-professional experience as well as growing the domestic club game in Namibia.
“We have a league in Namibia but there are only eight teams in it so that needs to expand.
“We need a criteria-based approach for each of the clubs on the coaching and medical side of things so the players get better and the schoolboys coming through are coming into a more structured programme.”