Namibia’s long march to a fifth successive Rugby World Cup starts on Wednesday when they take on Senegal in Division B of the African Cup in Madagascar.
The hosts Madagascar and Morocco will also be in action with the two winners to meet in the tournament final next Monday.
The overall winner will be promoted to Division A of the African Cup, where the 2015 World Cup qualifiers will then continue next year.
Namibia has been the second strongest rugby nation after South Africa on the African continent for more than a decade, but this position is being threatened. African nations like Tunisia, Morocco, Uganda and Kenya are getting stronger and putting more resources into rugby, while Zimbabwe should once again become a force in Africa in the near future.
They have taken Namibia’s position at the Junior World Rugby Trophy since 2009 and finished seventh at this year’s event after beating Russia 22-10 in the seventh-place play-off in Salt Lake City, Utah on Saturday.
Besides this, Namibia were demoted to Division B of the African Cup last year when they failed to compete in the African Cup due to a lack of finances after their return from the World Cup in New Zealand.
With the resignation of the previous executive committee, Namibian rugby was thrown into further disarray and although a new excom was elected with Bradley Basson as president in March, the long road to recovery will only start now.
Namibia will face a tough opponent in Senegal and victory will not come easy. The two nations met in Dakar in 2008 during the African qualifiers for the 2011 World Cup and Namibia nearly suffered a shock defeat before securing a late 13-10 victory.
Senegal held a 10-8 lead going into the final stages, but a try by Namibian captain Jacques Nieuwenhuis three minutes from time kept their World Cup hopes alive.
From that side, only Eugene Jantjies, Tinus du Plessis, PJ van Lill and Johnny Redelinghuys remain, although the team should have enough experience, with wings Danie Dames and Chrysander Botha, flyhalf Theuns Kotze and the locks Heinz Koll and Henk Franken remaining from last year’s World Cup.
Some of the new players in the side include fullback Justin Nel, front rankers Collen Smith and Callie Swanepoel and a new centre combination in Roger Thompson and Anthony Jevu, while there are several other new caps amongst the reserves like Martin Goeieman, Shaun du Preez, Harold Kasera, Petrus Human, Arthur Bouwer and Lean Stoop.
On paper, Namibia will have the edge since they are ranked 21st in the world on the IRB rankings while Senegal are only ranked 52nd. But they have only played once as a team this year when they lost 34-24 to South Africa Universities on June 23.
On that occasion, their forwards did well enough in the set pieces, but their combination play was lacking while there were also numerous simple errors like knock ons and wrong options.
Coach Vermeulen acknowledged as much after the game, although he added that they still needed time to gel.
“We made too many mistakes, especially on defence, while there were also too many handling errors. But we had several newcomers and this was our first match together, so that was to be expected,” he said.
For Vermeulen, too, it will be a crucial match since his future as Namibian coach will be assessed after the match. But he was confident that Namibia had the talent to qualify for the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
“I definitely think that we have the strength to qualify for the next World Cup, if you look at all the players who are currently plying their trade overseas. I also believe that we have some players here in Namibia who have the talent to make the step up to the next level, so the talent is definitely there,” he said.