The World Cup is not all about Twickenham full houses, powerhouse wings like Julian Savea and sundry members of the House of Windsor. It is also about packed audiences in far-flung Devon, diminutive speed merchants like Telusa Veainu and honoured guests of the sporting aristocracy. Frankie Fredericks, for example.
Namibia’s one and only Olympic medallist, the revered sprinter from Windhoek, pitched up in Exeter yesterday to support his countrymen in their quest for a ground-breaking victory over the biggest but most chaotic of the South Seas contenders. He gave it his best shot – if Fredericks had waved his flag any harder, his arm would have parted company with his shoulder – but as per usual, the second-best side in Africa came second.
There were good reasons for this: Tonga had too much grunt in the scrum, too much strength on the gallop and too much size all round. They also possessed an eye-catching performer in Veainu who, when compared with players constructed on the scale of Opeti Fonua or Joseph Tuineau, was nothing more than a gnat on an elephant’s behind. Even so, he made a mess of the Namibians.
He was on the scoreboard inside six minutes, reaching the line from distance and somehow managing to ground the ball under a pile of bodies. There was another try towards the end of the third quarter – the man from Kawakawa in New Zealand took a fine long pass from the impressive flanker Jack Ram and fairly flew to the left corner – and in between, he went within an ace of claiming the finish of the tournament to date. Sadly, the horizontal acrobatics he pulled off in zero space were in vain, thanks to a hand on the touchline.
Peculiarly, he failed to win the man-of-the-match gong. Ram was the player selected and while the back-rower was full value for a hearty slap on the back and a free beer, there were too many missed tackles in open field to justify the award. Oh well. There’s no accounting for folk.
This is the fifth time that Namibia have qualified for the global tournament and if they have yet to register a victory, it is not for the want of trying on the part of their captain and resident superhero, Jacques Burger. The Saracens flanker bagged himself a couple of tries from driving mauls and with some help from the outside-half Theuns Kotze and two rumbustious back-row partners in Rohan Kitshoff and Renaldo Bothma, he strained every last sinew in an attempt to break his nation’s duck.
Yet in truth, the Namibians were never quite close enough to Tonga to cause real panic in the Pacific ranks. That being said, they could take a degree of solace in the fact that the favourites – the side who scared the pants off the Springboks in 2007 and beat France four years later – felt that they needed a late penalty from the substitute playmaker Kurt Morath, just in case.
Needless to say, the Tongans remain a mystery. Some of their touches – the odd one-handed pick-up from the outside-half Latiume Fosita, say, or the occasional quality intervention from the long-serving forward Hale T-Pole – were wondrous to behold, but the day that they apply themselves properly over the course of a whole match, hell will freeze over.
By losing to Georgia on the opening weekend of the competition, they pretty much wrecked any chance of landing the quarter-final place they may just have fancied for themselves.
But if you like your rugby explosive and frustrating in equal measure, they remain the team of your dreams.Reuse content