Namibia have yet to record their first Rugby World Cup win
The team includes engineers, a dentist, students and a diamond trader
Captain Jacques Burger will play in his third world cup and hopes to bow out in style
Reigning Rugby World Cup champions the All Blacks have 38 tournament wins, 274 tries, and 2,038 points to their name.
After four tournaments and 15 attempts, Namibia have yet to win a match.
On paper it doesn’t appear a fair fight – but then again, most of the New Zealand team don’t have to work a 9-to-5.
Littered with amateurs, the Namibia squad counts a dentist, a diamond trader, farmers, engineers and several students amongst its numbers. The lowest ranked team at this year’s World Cup, they line up against the All Blacks at the Olympic Stadium in London at 21:00 CET to test their mettle against rugby’s most formidable side.
The result will barely matter though; their journey to the tournament is a triumphant underdog story in itself.
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The road to the World Cup
Competitive sport can strain even the closest bonds.
“People say it’s easier working for your Dad… it’s not that easy. He’s supportive, but he’s ok with it.”
This is not England fly half Owen Farrell describing his father Andy, backs coach of the national team.
Darryl de la Harpe works a full-time job back home in Namibia, and earlier this year had to ask his father for a few extra hours a week to train with the national squad.
De la Harpe is one of Namibia’s amateur players, a group who rise every morning for training at 5am, go to work, then afterward train again until 8pm. Before flying to England, De la Harpe had survived off four hours sleep for months; others traveled 300km round trips to make training sessions.
But today all their hard work and sacrifice will pay off. Squaring up to the All Blacks, the odds will be stacked against them. “We only have 2.3 million people in Namibia, only 1,000 registered players,” explains de la Harpe. Just reaching the tournament is “a really big achievement.”
The nation have yet to win a match at the Rugby World Cup, and once succumbed to a 142-0 drumming by Australia in 2003, but there’s genuine belief in the camp that they’ll put on a good show.
“This is definitely the best Namibian squad I’ve been involved with, hands down,” says captain and Saracens flanker Jacques Burger.
Known as one of the sport’s hardest hitters, the talismanic leader of the Welwitschias should know – he’s been around long enough. After suffering disappointment in 2007 and 2011, the captain knows that whilst victory against New Zealand might be beyond their reach, a strong performance could work wonders in registering their first tournament win.
“If we can put together some good stuff, maybe score a great try or keep them out in a tough stage of the match defensively… we could think ‘yeah, we’re good enough to do this’.”
Paying testament to his amateur colleagues, Namibia’s most decorated player and once their sportsperson of the year believes it is the part-timers who are the beating heart of the squad.
“For us as a nation, it’s definitely about the guys who work eight to five, they’ve offered up so much. They’re incredible… They’re not just good rugby players but good human beings.”
These human beings will be eyeing up group matches against Tonga and Georgia for the nation’s inaugural win, and believe if it happens, will inspire profound change within Namibian rugby.
“I think you would see some tears,” admits de la Harpe.
“It would be a wonderful moment… it would be a huge, huge step for most of the guys,” says veteran scrumhalf Eugene Jantijes, playing professionally in Romania. “If we get one win or two, I think they’ll get contracts and we’ll be able to do even more in the next four years.”
De la Harpe agrees, and thinks by Japan 2019 the whole team will be professional. For him the dream is still alive. “I’m enjoying life at home, but if something comes up, I’m ready.”
For now though, the matter at hand is New Zealand.
“It could be close,” Burger speculates. De la Harpe is even more optimistic. “For the first time we can say we can take any side for 60 minutes – then anything can happen.”
Back at home, whilst expectations are low, anticipation is high. Namibian President Hage Geingob sent the team on their way telling the Welwitschias “to give the All Blacks hell.”
“A lot of people want us to beat [them],” says Burger. “I suppose we’re going to have to do it now.”