Johannesburg – Former Springbok coach Peter de Villiers has put Zimbabwe on a “war footing” as African qualifying for the 2019 Rugby World Cup kicks off on Saturday.
Zimbabwe play Morocco in Harare and five-time World Cup qualifiers Namibia meet Uganda in Windhoek in the first round with Kenya and Tunisia launching their campaigns next weekend.
Namibia are the highest ranked contenders at 24 in the world followed by Kenya (28), Uganda (37), Morocco (38), Tunisia (42) and Zimbabwe (44).
De Villiers was the first black coach of the Springboks and guided them to the 2011 World Cup quarter-finals, where they were unlucky losers against Australia.
“We are not playing just another game,” the 61-year-old told his squad ahead of the Morocco match at Harare Sports Club. “This is a Test. This is war.
“I have told my boys to prepare for Moroccan onslaughts from any part of the pitch. We must have self-belief and not be taken by surprise.
“Most of them have pedigree having played for Zimbabwe in age-group competitions, and some of them have already played for their country at senior level.
“We took them out of club rugby almost a month ago to prepare them as a team. The spirit is high and they live for and care for each other.”
De Villiers, who was critical of South African officials when his four-year contract was not renewed after the Australia loss, hailed the support he receives in Zimbabwe.
“I have got tremendous support from all the officials at the national rugby body,” he told reporters in Harare.
“The players, too, have been treated professionally. Rugby in Zimbabwe has entered a new era and everyone has bought in.”
A disadvantage for Zimbabwe, and Morocco and Tunisia, is that they will play three of their five matches away because they are the three lower ranked of the six competing nations.
Zimbabwe played in the first World Cup in New Zealand in 1987 and the second edition in England four years later.
Ivory Coast competed at the 1995 World Cup in South Africa and since 1999 Namibia have been the African representatives.
The country topping the final standings in mid-August will join defending champions New Zealand, South Africa and Italy in Pool B with the fifth spot going to the repechage winners.
There could be three African teams in Pool B as the qualifying runners-up go into the repechage play-offs with Canada, Hong Kong or the Cook Islands and Germany, Portugal or Samoa.
Rugby is the fastest growing sport in Africa, according to a Rugby World statement.
It says there has been record participation growth and fan engagement over the past five years with the number of African national rugby teams soaring from six in 2002 to 38 today.