To coin an old saying, Namibia had ‘hid a light under their bushel’ at Rugby World Cups, from the first time they were involved in the tournament in 1999 through to 2015.
Past tournaments hadn’t gone well for them with the Welwitschias never properly showing their full potential and being on the receiving end of some frightful scorelines in losing all 15 matches leading up to their fifth appearance in England.
However, they came mightily close to ending that barren run at the 18th attempt when they took on Georgia at Sandy Park, on 7 October, 2015, losing by the narrowest of margins, 17-16, to claim their first-ever point at a Rugby World Cup.
Drawing on the importance of fire to the African culture, renowned sports psychologist Henning Gericke was brought on board and the new-found sense of belief and togetherness he instilled in the Welwitschias’ camp enabled them to take a side ranked six places higher in the World Rugby Men’s Rankings down to the wire.
“The preparation for the Georgia game was pretty standard in terms of what we had been doing and it was the psychology that we really looked at,” explained then Namibia head coach Phil Davies.
“Fire in Africa is a big symbol of togetherness; people get around the fire to talk and share stories, so we made it really personal for the players – about what it meant playing for Namibia and for their families.
“We spoke about lighting the flame in the performance, about who was going to ignite us with a big hit, who was going to make a big statement to get us the win.”
Many people expected Namibia to be the whipping boys of Pool C, but they’d been far from disgraced in their first two encounters: 58-14 and 35-21 defeats to defending champions New Zealand and Tonga, respectively.
“We played okay against Tonga and scored some points, but we were disappointed after the game,” reflected Davies.
“I think there were a lot of boys that thought we could do it but without really realising what was needed to be done from a physical and mental point of view to match the Tongans.
“From a psychological point of view before Georgia, we really needed to dig deep into the players’ psyche.”
This is where Gericke, nicknamed the ‘Head Doctor’ during his time with the RWC 2007-winning Springboks, came in.
Gericke, a talented enough athlete to run 10 sub four-minute miles back in the 80s, got the Namibian squad to visualise how good they could be, using some of the techniques that had helped the Springboks and countless other sporting teams to excel in their chosen sports.
“He helped to get the x-factor out of the players, he’s an awesome bloke and an outstanding psychologist,” commented Davies.
Gericke clearly struck a chord with the Namibian players as they went into half-time against Georgia leading 6-0, despite losing talisman and captain Jacques Burger to a head injury 10 minutes into the match.
“Just before half-time, I came down from the box with the (backs) coach Pieter Rossouw, and I thought by the time I got down to the pitchside, the players will be in the dressing room,” Davies said.
“But when I got there, we had seven or eight scrums near our line, and George Clancy had sent two of our props, Raoul Larsen and then Johannes Coetzee, to the sin-bin.
“I was still watching in tunnel four minutes later! It was a crazy end of the half.
“When we eventually went into the dressing room, the boys were in good spirits, we were 6-0 up and we’d never been in that situation before.”
Conscious of Georgia’s dominant scrum, Davies urged his team to try and outflank their more physical opponents and add to Theuns Kotze’s two penalties by putting a bit more width on their game.
However, the effects of playing with 13 men told and Georgia scored a brace of quickfire tries to lead 14-6 before resisting Namibia’s comeback and holding on to win by the narrowest of margins.
Showing the mental resilience that Gericke instilled in them, Namibia stayed in the game, and with Kotze taking his tally of points in the match to 16, they had pushed Georgia all the way without quite managing to get over the winning line.
“We played well in the second half, but I just thought, in the end, those scrums before half-time came back to haunt us a little bit in terms of our energy,” Davies said.
“It was a real shame we couldn’t quite get the win that day, but I can’t fault the effort of the players, it was one hell of a game.
“I think we surprised Georgia quite a bit because they were overwhelming favourites. After the game, our boys were really proud."
Now his involvement with Namibia is over, after two Rugby World Cup campaigns, the satisfaction Davies derives from his time in charge of the squad is tinged with sadness that he, and his players, did not get to the finish the job off in Japan because of Typhoon Hagibis.
“For me, there were three significant milestones in that four-year journey,” he said.
“The Georgia game was the first, then the way we went through the Africa Cup unbeaten for four years, and finally culminating in Japan with the three tries we scored against Italy and the first 36 minutes against New Zealand when we only trailed by a point.
“It’s such a shame for the boys and the country they didn’t get to play that final pool game against Canada because we felt we had a real chance to be competitive and, hopefully, get the right result.”
With the world currently in lockdown, more fire and brimstone performances from Namibia will have to wait for another day.