THE wait is finally over as the Rugby World Cup kicks off with Japan taking on Russia on Friday, while Namibia launch their campaign against the Azzuri of Italy on Sunday.
In an action-packed weekend, there will be some other mouthwatering clashes with two of the favourites, New Zealand and South Africa facing off on Saturday, but Namibian eyes will be focussed on Higashiosaka City on Sunday when Namibia take on Italy at 07h15 Namibian time.
With Namibia drawn in the ‘Group of Death,’ which also features New Zealand, South Africa and Canada, one, however, needs to be realistic about their chances, and Italy will certainly start the match as the overwhelming favourites.
They are currently ranked 14th in the world, and although they are not expected to reach the knockout stages of the tournament, they are much more experienced than Namibia.
Since 2000 they have been competing in the Six Nations against the top northern hemisphere countries – England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and France, while they also regularly compete against other top nations.
In 2016, for instance, they caused a major upset by beating South Africa 20-18 in Florence, although South Africa bounced back with a 35-6 victory the following year.
Italy lost all their matches at the Six Nations Championship this year, but they remained competitive throughout, going down 33-20 to Scotland, 26-15 to Wales, 26-16 to Ireland and 25-14 to France, with only their 57-14 defeat to England being a bit one-sided.
More recently, Italy have been quite active with several World Cup warm-up matches over the past month.
On 10 August they lost 29-10 to Ireland and a week later they trounced Russia 85-15.
That victory was, however, put into perspective when they suffered sizeable defeats to France (47-19) on 30 August and England (37-0) on 6 September.
They will be led by their inspirational eighthman and captain Sergio Parisse who is widely considered to be one of the greatest number eights of modern rugby and was nominated for the IRB International Player of the Year in 2008 and 2013.
He is also the third most capped player in the world with 140 tests, while he will equal the world record of appearing at five different World Cups in Japan.
The rest of the Italian team is vastly experienced with flanker Alessandro Zanni (115 caps) and hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini (104 caps) also having broken the century mark for Italy.
Other experienced players include fly half Tommaso Allan (51 caps) and centres Tommaso Benvenuti (59) and Michele Campagnaro (44 caps), while some of their exciting newcomers include winger Matteo Minozzi and flanker Jake Polledri.
Namibia is ranked 23rd – the lowest ranked nation at the World Cup, while they have largely been inactive this year, playing only two official test matches against Russia and Uruguay at the Nations Cup in June. They made history by beating Uruguay for the first time (30-28), but lost 20-0 to Russia, while they also lost 39-25 to an Argentinian XV at the Nations Cup.
Since then they remained inactive until a few weeks ago when they beat the South African franchise side, the Southern Kings, 28-22 in Windhoek and 21-17 in Walvis Bay.
Furthermore, national coach Phil Davies dropped a bombshell when he announced quite a young squad on 2 September and left out the experienced loose forward Renaldo Bothma and fullback Chrysander Botha.
With an average age of 24,5 the squad is Namibia’s youngest yet at the World Cup, and while there is certainly some exciting talent among them, like Cliven Loubser, Lesley Klim, Johann Tromp, Janco Venter and Wian Conradie, it remains to be seen how they will fair on the world’s biggest stage.
In an interview earlier this week, Davies said that people could expect ‘courage and flair’ from Namibia at the World Cup, while defence coach Dale Mcintosh told AFP that the ‘process’ was more important than the result.
“If Italy beat us by 90 points I won’t be disappointed as long as the boys give it their all,” he concluded.
With all the statistics pointing to a comfortable victory for the Azzuri, the Namibians will need a lot of courage and flair to make their nation proud.