Rugby World Cup
Namibia prove they are far from cannon fodder by standing up to All Blacks' challenge
Tom Hamilton
September 24, 2015
Namibia's Johan Deysel scores a try © Getty Images

QUEEN ELIZABETH PARK, London -- The scoreboard shows a comfortable win for the All Blacks but this was no embarrassment for Namibia, far from it.

To underline the gulf in experience between the two sides, take the two starting No.4s on the field. On one hand you had Luke Romano -- a hugely experienced Crusaders lock with 21 All Blacks caps. He has lost just two games in the black jersey and has won everywhere from Apia to Argentina. For Namibia, wearing their No.4 shirt, was PJ Van Lill -- a dentist by trade who was being played out of position as he is a No.8 at the weekend.

It was hardly a straightforward few months for Namibia heading into this World Cup. Their inspirational coach Danie Vermeulen resigned three months short of the World Cup and was replaced by Phil Davies in July. Vermeulen  wrote an open letter saying his shock decision came down to union interference and a depleted backroom staff; not ideal for a team who were already fighting an uphill battle heading into the tournament in terms of experience and ability but not in passion and application.

New Zealand 58-14 Namibia (video available in Australia only)

The majority of those in the Namibian ranks would never have experienced a stadium like this black and white block in the middle of Stratford, nor faced a side like the All Blacks. Tier One nations don't rumble into Windhoek often. Even for captain and talisman Jacques Burger just one of his 34 caps prior to Thursday evening had come against a Tier One side -- it resulted in a 105-13 defeat to South Africa back in 2007.

But this was a match they would have been looking forward to for months -- a once-in-a-career opportunity, a game that would be the tale at whatever profession their amateur contingent returns to after the World Cup. And they tackled and chased anything Kiwi and brought the house down when they scored a try in the second half.

The 'Welwitschias' are largely formed of amateur players. "We've got engineers, diamond traders, farmers, construction workers, and a dentist which is handy," Burger said earlier in the week. Their pre-match motivation came via the relatively old-school medium of a text message. There were no volleys via social media like the South Africa sports minister prefers; instead the Namibia president sent them a succinct message to give the All Blacks "hell".

This was rugby on a scale that most of the Namibian players had never experienced. But there was an honour about the way Namibia played. There was no shirt-swapping requests at half-time, and this was not a mere contact training session for the All Blacks. Namibia went toe-to-toe for the 80 minutes.

In parts of the game, Namibia showed more attacking intent and imagination than other teams in this tournament -- Italy and Romania spring to mind -- and the eventual margin of defeat was in part a result of wanting to play rather than sit back and go for damage limitation.

They attempted to throw the unknown at the Kiwis. It was a game that lacked minute-on-minute volume from the stands but when the crowd weren't cheering All Blacks tries or attempting to start Mexican Waves, they were urging Namibia on.

In the first half, some of the loudest expressions of commendation were for Namibia's endeavour. The cross-kick Johan Tromp plucked from the air drew applause, as did David Philander's attempt to kick in behind the Kiwi's defence and then run on to it. Tjiunee Uanivi also caused mischief in the All Blacks' second-row stealing two lineouts. And when fly-half Theuns Kotze got his first points on the board, it was as if they had won the tournament. Namibia were there to be more than cannon-fodder.

And it paid off in the second half when Johan Deysel, the 23-year-old Leopards centre, turned and flopped over the try line. It was a stylish move, with pace on the ball and it was not down to poor All Blacks defending that they had their score, but sheer guts and determination. This stadium has not heard noise like it since its 2012 Olympics days.

Looking ahead, in Burger they have a player who can inspire the next generation. He was everywhere against the All Blacks, a player with no sense of self-awareness for his own safety. "When he hits they stay hit," was Brad Thorn's pre-match assessment of Burger. "If he was a New Zealander, he'd be an All Black." In rugby terms there is seldom-higher praise.

Japan are the benchmark for all minnows but they are a years ahead of Namibia in infrastructure. Comparisons cannot be drawn but instead inspiration garnered. Japan have a fully functioning professional league and boast 115,233 rugby-playing folk. Namibia have 11,850 but World Rugby's global 'Get into Rugby' mass-participation programme is starting to pay dividends in their grassroots.

A professional league is not remotely on the horizon for Namibia -- the nearest the players have is a trip across the border to South Africa's Currie Cup -- but there is still untapped talent.

"A lot of guys will get scooped up by bigger clubs," was Burger's prediction during the week. It's worth remembering that just 11 years ago he was a sales rep in Windhoek. Tonight he received a standing ovation as he was substituted in the second half.

There will be more Jacques Burgers in Namibia, potentially even in this current squad. You hope for the good of the game and for rugby in that part of the world, they are given an opportunity to shine.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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