Saturday, June 06, 2015

The Africa Cup 2015

By Ciarán Duffy

A competition to add some variety to your rugby life

African rugby is an interesting scenario. It’s a big continent but it only provides us with one top tier team. A top tier team who just happen to be two time world champions and are currently the second highest ranked side in the world. With their presence in the Rugby Championship, they are more familiar with Argentina, Australia, and New Zealand than any of their neighbours. In fact, they have only ever played one other African team in an official international test match. They played Namibia twice, and beat them both times. The Springboks are usually called a Southern-Hemisphere side rather than an African side. Because of this, there is a tendency to overlook African rugby.

However, there is still the matter of the fifteenth edition of the Africa cup. The world cup warm ups don’t start until August and there’s still a month to go before the World Championship starts. Club rugby comes to an end next week with the top 14 final. There’s also concerns the world may come to an end soon because a Scottish team won a trophy this season. So June promises to be a bit of an empty month, where we’ll just have to sit and wonder who’s going to take the Leinster job. So why not get our fix in the mean time with what promises to be an interesting competition.

The Africa cup works in a similar way to the European Nations Cup. It is split up into divisions 1A, 1B, and 1C, with regional division 2s following. Division 1A is made up of reigning champions Namibia, last years runner-ups Zimbabwe, Kenya, and newly promoted Tunisia who take the place of Madagascar in this years edition. It’s a single round robin group with each team playing 3 games, the top team wins and the bottom team goes down to division 1B. The fixtures do not alternate between home and away by year like they do in the six nations. It is decided that the two highest ranked teams, Namibia and Zimbabwe in this case, will play two out of their three games at home. The first game is today at 16:30 in Tunis, where Tunisia will host Namibia.

Last year, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Kenya all finished level on points, with Namibia winning out on points difference. Which is exactly why this completion is so interesting. Aside from South Africa, three other African teams have qualified for the World Cup. Zimbabwe reached the first two editions, with Cote d’Ivoire entering in 1995. Namibia have qualified for the last four tournaments as well as this years. They have all maintained a 100% losing record. Namibia will face New Zealand, Argentina, Tonga, and Georgia in their group this time around, and it’s hard to bank on them breaking the trend. But in the Africa cup, each team has a reasonable chance of winning. Instead of watching these teams get beaten off the park by much stronger opposition, we can see them play competitive against teams of a similar standard.

A problem with this tournament is the scheduling. There is one game this weekend, and then Zimbabwe host Kenya next Saturday. There’s a week off before Tunisia travel to Kenya on the 28th, and Zimbabwe play Tunisia on the 4th of July. Then, there’s a month’s break. In the penultimate weekend, Namibia host Kenya, before playing Zimbabwe on the final day.

Why so many breaks? It seems a bit ridiculous that Namibia play their first game, and then have to wait two months before they play their next. And only one fixture a week? It feels like they could have the two on the same weekend. It’s hard to get invested in a competition with such long gaps between seeing the teams play. It’s not as if they are participating in other competitions in the mean time, this is it. What’s also slightly confusing is the fact that divisions 1B and 1C are played in full during these weeks off. Competitions that are linked but still separate like this need fluidity in their structure. Towards the middle of the tournament, the top division is tossed aside, with it’s lower tiers being shoved in carelessly. It’s not the quality that might make this tournament unattractive to fans, it’s the ridiculous format. This is only the second year the tournament has been a round-robin group, so perhaps there are still some flaws to be ironed out.

In terms of predictions, I think Namibia will get a boost heading into their World Cup campaign. The Welwitschias have their two more difficult games at home, Zimbabwe and Kenya, and I can’t see them having too many problems against Tunisia. While Namibia may win all their games, Tunisia will likely lose theirs. Zimbabwe are a strong side in the tournament, and they put it up to Russia in the repechage stages of world cup qualifying. Kenya are a plucky team who have enough in them to avoid relegation. In fact, they were only one game away from achieving automatic qualification for the world cup through last years tournament. Look for Tunisia to return to division 1B, and Namibia to win their fifth tournament. They face a tough task to retain their trophy, but still, it’s gonna take alot to drag it away from them, (let me know if anyone picked up on that cheesy reference).

It may be burdened by a messy fixtures list, but the Africa Cup is an intriguing competition. If nothing else, it’s something different. Rugby is not made purely for the Europeans and a selection of Southern Hemisphere sides; it’s for the whole world to play. This year’s Africa Cup looks to be a solid three horse race. For any rugby fans looking to broaden their horizons, gives this one a look.

Ciarán Duffy (@VoiceQuakeDuffy) is a Leinster supporter who would watch any game of rugby while undoubtedly taking it too seriously.  He enjoys over analysing and taking a pessimistic look at the bright side while talking about Irish, European, and World Rugby issues on and off the field. 

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Taken by JLP from RDS press box on Nov 16, 2019