Rugby union in Africa is not as strong as in other continents, and so the teams that the continent sends to the Rugby World Cup every four years are generally the same, with South Africa and Namibia their representatives at every edition of the tournament since 1999.
However, whilst the Springboks are famed as one of the world’s superpowers in the sport, Namibia are at the opposite end of the spectrum, with them yet to win a game at the finals and often struggling against the other teams in their pool. They did come close to finding that elusive victory in 2015, when they lost to Georgia by one point in Exeter, but that is as close as they have ever come.
That record doesn’t look like coming to an end in 2023, with them being drawn against hosts France, three-time champions New Zealand, a resurgent Italy and a Uruguay side who are beatable but who are one of the up-and-coming nations in rugby. Therefore, it could end up being another tournament of disappointment for them.
That is not to say that they don’t try though, because, in 2019, then-assistant coach Dale McIntosh said that the Namibian players train at every hour of the day possible outside of their day jobs, including early in the morning and late at night, and incumbent head coach Allister Coetzee, the former South Africa boss who took charge of the Welwitschias in 2021 (as well as retaining his leadership role with Italian club side Rugby Rovigo) has shared that opinion.
However, the fact that the players do not generally have as much time on the training ground as others at the tournament could be a detriment to them, no matter how long they spend in online meetings with Coetzee as he tries to implement his ideas and go through strengths and weaknesses with them.
Nevertheless, the head coach is experienced enough to recognise these limitations and to manage expectations, and he will no doubt have set certain targets for his players that he will hope they can achieve in order to leave with their heads held high.
Given that Namibia used to be a part of South Africa, and only gained independence from them in 1990, their style of rugby is not that dissimilar to the Springboks’, in that they depend on aggressive and fast-paced play and look to utilise their brute strength in order to cause problems for their opponents, and many who have faced Namibia have attested to the fact that it is never easy playing them for that reason.
What will also be worth remembering is that Namibia’s squad play their domestic rugby in many different leagues around the world, with a number of players starring in the USA’s Major League Rugby, a few featuring for clubs in France, a couple playing across the border in South Africa and one or two currently situated in Israel.
Therefore, they will have been exposed to different tactical ideas and will be able to bring a range of experiences to the team, and that could also be of huge benefit to the Welwitschias as they try to form a coherent game plan and ensure that they can challenge in every match.
The defensive side of things is very similar, with Namibia again relying on their aggression and strength when out of possession as they try to limit what their opponents can do around the field.
This approach doesn’t always work out for them, given that they lost their opening Rugby Africa Cup match to the Ivory Coast 24-13, but the fact that they have only shipped 225 points in 12 meetings with Kenya (who are widely seen as one of fastest improving sides in Africa), an average of 18.75 per game, and didn’t concede at all in their most recent meeting with the Simbas does show how difficult Namibia can be to break down when they get every detail of their play right.
Whilst experienced names like P.J. van Lill, who is now 39 and who will be going to his fourth World Cup, and captain Johan Deysel will be vital in bringing the whole team together in France, the standout name to look out for is undoubtedly back rower Wian Conradie.
Currently plying his trade for New England Free Jacks in the USA (his second spell with them following a season at Gloucester in the English Premiership), he is known for his physicality and work rate both in and out of possession, and there is little doubt when he plays that he epitomises many of the characteristics that Namibian rugby is built on.
In that aforementioned match against Kenya, the opposing side simply had no way of containing his threat when he got onto the front foot, and Namibia will hope that he can repeat that level of performance and make some dents in opposing defences when their World Cup campaign gets underway.
As mentioned, whilst Namibia will approach this tournament with fresh eyes and a desire to finally show what they can do, getting results is likely to be beyond them, with all four of their opponents in their pool ranked above them in the world standings and likely to win the games.
However, Namibia will have specific ideas in mind for what they want to get out of the tournament, such as getting points on the board and limiting what teams like Italy and Uruguay can do against them, and, if they can achieve those, then it won’t have been a bad experience for them and they will have given themselves something positive to build on over the next four years.