South Africa won its historic first Rugby World Cup when the Rainbow Nation hosted the tournament in 1995, fondly remembered for Nelson Mandela famously handing over the trophy to Springboks captain Francois Pienaar at Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg.
It was the first Rugby World Cup in the premier format of the sport to be staged on African soil.
The Springboks have since gone on to lift the World Cup on two more occasions – in France in 2008 and in Japan in 2019 – to equal the mighty All Blacks’ three-times title record.
So, whilst South Africa has been crowned champions of the world thrice in the chief version of the game, the country is still to get a taste of glory in the shorter form, the Sevens World Cup, since the tournament was launched in 1993.
South Africa and Africa, host the continent’s first Sevens World Cup in Cape Town this weekend.
If hosting the tournament for the first time is the magic wand, then South Africa’s Sevens team, like the gallant 15s outfit of nearly three decades ago, should fancy its chances of being world champions by the end of the weekend.
For record-breaking Springbok speedster Tonderai Chavhanga, who scored six tries on his South Africa debut back in 2005, a Sevens World Cup trophy is long due for his adopted country.
Zimbabwe-born Chavhanga was initially called-up to South Africa’s Sevens side, the Blitzboks, two years before his Test debut for the Springboks against Uruguay 27 years ago.
“I can certainly say that it is phenomenal that South Africa is going to be hosting this year’s Rugby World Cup Sevens,” Chavhanga tells This Is Africa.
“Regarding the chances of the Blitzbokke, I think they have a very, very good chance. In fact, they have as good a chance as just about anybody. They are the reigning gold medalists for the Commonwealth Games, they are also ranked number two (in the World Sevens Series Rankings) and they have won in Cape Town before (in the World Rugby Sevens Series). So having that home ground is a tremendous advantage for the Blitzbokke and I have nothing but high expectations for them to actually lifting the Rugby World Cup Sevens.”
Outside the field, Chavhanga – an outspoken critic of discrimination and inequalities in life – views Africa’s first Sevens World Cup as yet another opportunity to forge greater camaraderie across the continent.
“I think previously we have seen the incredible effects of sport, what sport has done for South Africa in particular,” comments Chavhanga, the first black person from Zimbabwe to play for South Africa.
“World Cups have always been tournaments that unite people and I think in this case, South Africa is going through some political challenges, some racial tensions. And you could even extend it to this thing of the xenophobic trend that seems to be brewing”.
“I think that not only for South Africa, but for other Africans, it (the World Cup) will be a great show. For the fact that Zimbabwe is taking part in the World Cup, Kenya is taking part in the World Cup, and Uganda is taking part in the World Cup. At the end of the day we are all Africans and it’s important for us to celebrate this tournament together and wishing all our African teams the very best. Traditionally, Kenya have put up their hands. It will be great to see our Zim boys playing to the fullest of their potential and hopefully they have a successful tournament,” Chavanga adds.
After South Africa, Kenya has been the most competitive team in Africa on the global Sevens circuit over the past decade or so. The men from East Africa will be relying on experience and selection consistency in Cape Town. In the veteran Collins Injera, Kenya has one of the most recognised Sevens rugby players in the world. The 35-year-old from Nairobi will be playing in his fourth Sevens World Cup while Willy Ambaka and Billy Odhiambo will be featuring in their third tournaments.
Captain Nelson Oyoo, Samuel Oliech, Jeff Oluoch and Herman Humwa are all going to the World Cup for the second time. The inclusion of Injera, a legendary figure in Kenyan rugby, particularly delights the country’s Sevens team coach Damian McGrath. “Collins brings a raft of experience,” the Englishman told Kenyan media last week.
“He’s lived it and done it. There’s not many players on the Sevens circuit who’ve done and achieved what Collins has. His influence in training is very good. He’s very good with the younger guys and understands how Sevens should be played. With the withdrawals that we’ve had, we felt it was good to bring someone like Collins in to bring that experience to the team,” McGrath adds.
As for Zimbabwe, one of Africa’s most regular features at the World Cup – five-time competitors in 1997, 2001, 2009, 2013 and 2018 – the Cheetahs bring a young and experimental side this time around as the southern Africans look forward to the future after several core players went into retirement.
For this reason, Zimbabwean high-performance expert and rugby enthusiast Nyasha Muchochomi has modest expectations of the Kudzai Mashawi-captained side.
“It is wonderful that the team qualified for the World Cup,” Muchochomi tells TIA.
“Unfortunately, tournament rules give Zim a slim chance of progression in the tournament. Zim need to win their opening game against Canada to participate in the rest of the tournament. Considering that Canada have been playing on the circuit, it means chances of causing an upset are low. The team should use the opportunity to learn from other teams and realise they are not far from top. Considering the challenging life journey every player and coach has had, this is a perfect opportunity to express their gifts on an international stage. The other goal would be to play the game in a manner that demonstrate to the corporate world that Zimbabwe Sevens rugby deserve their support.”
Uganda is the least experienced African side in the World Cup, qualifying for the second time after their maiden appearance in San Francisco, US, in 2018. But the Ugandans, following in the footsteps of their East African neighbours Kenya, have been investing well into their Sevens rugby, taking into consideration that they have their best chance of competing with the rest of the world in this format.
“Uganda comes to our second Sevens World Cup appearance a much mature and experienced side,” Ugandan journalist Ernest Akorebirungi tells TIA.
“We played in the Commonwealth Games and Challenger Series in August against top sides in the world. Six of the 12 players going to Cape Town this weekend were in San Francisco in 2018 so they know what it means to play at that level. The team has set a goal of qualifying for Round of 16, and I think that’s a realistic target. They face Samoa who are big and physical, in the first match. We lost 45-7 to them in 2018. But they should be able to get the win in this game and progress.”