Duane Heath

Rising up from rugby oblivion

2004-11-12 07:25

Sweden. Madagascar. Denmark. Singapore. Moldova. Brazil. Chinese Taipei. What do all these countries have in common? And just what is it about them that tells a sad story about a once-proud rugby nation?

The uneasy answer is that the countries I've just mentioned, along with China, Venezuela, Switzerland and Croatia, are now officially better at rugby than Zimbabwe.

The latest International Rugby Board world rankings released this week makes for fairly predictable reading at the top of the sport's food chain - New Zealand first, Australia second, etc. - but it's further down the list of 95 member countries where the real heartening - and heartbreaking - stories are to be found.

I won't go into the reasons here for fall of Zimbabwe rugby, for I haven't had a chance to go there and find out for myself, so for now the cold numbers will have to speak for themselves: our northern neighbours, the team that gave us so many Springbok heroes over the years, is now ranked 47th in the world, and falling by the month.

Forty-seventh in 2004! And yet, back in 1987 and 1991 at the first two World Cups, there stood Zimbabwe on the big stage. They were rugby minnows, yes, but at least they were swimming with the big fish. Today Zim have fallen down that food chain, reduced to rugby plankton for other hungry, up-and-coming nations.

I'll say it again and I'm not joking: Moldova is a better rugby nation than Zimbabwe. If you don't believe me, just ask the sport's governing body.

But then Moldova, according to the IRB, is also better than another one-hit World Cup wonder, Cote d'Ivorie.

Halcyon days

Gone are those halcyon days of 1995, when larger-than-life men such as Toussaint Djehi - heroes for a month - lived out their World Cup dreams on South African soil. Today, we are told, the Swiss and Croatians put out better sides.

Closer to home, another team on the slide - if last year's World Cup hiding against Australia didn't tell you that already - is Namibia.

The boys from Windhoek find themselves at number 26 on the charts and falling, and it seems only a matter of time before the Czechs, Germans and Dutch come steaming past. The Dutch, for goodness sakes! Is anybody listening over in Windhoek?

Okay, so the IRB rankings make for bad reading if your stocks are falling - but the point of this column is perhaps not so much to kick the likes of Zimbabwe and Namibia while they are down (what they need desperately is a lot of helping hands, not handouts) but to celebrate a new world hierarchy that's beginning to form.

Everything, including our beloved game, changes. Teams fall out of fashion and some just plain tumble down into oblivion. But for every one-hit wonder there is a new star burning up the charts, ready to make a name for itself. Venezuela is one of those up-and-comers.

The poor cousins of South American rugby, Venezuela opened their World Cup qualifying campaign with an excellent 32-22 away win over Peru last week. The happy band of men from Caracas now face Brazil in the next round, for the right to fight it out with continental middleweights Chile and Paraguay further down the track.

And, thanks to the IRB rankings, their win didn't go unnoticed. Up six places this month to 42 go the Venezuelans. And you still thought rugby started and ended with the Springboks and Ireland?

Well, there's no doubt that the Test at Lansdowne Road is the highlight of the international fixture list this weekend, but then as a South African I'm going to say that, aren't I?

Equally, all French and Australian attention will be on Paris, and New Zealand supporters will have eyes only for Italy, as the All Blacks get their European tour underway against the Six Nations lightweights.

Rugby gospel

But if you look just a little further down the fixture list, you begin to realise just how far the rugby gospel has spread in a relatively short time. When Paul Honiss blows his whistle in Dublin on Saturday, referees across the globe will be doing the same thing to start Test matches in places like Luxemburg, Colombia and Serbia Montenegro.

You won't find the scores from those Rugby World Cup qualifying games in the Sunday papers, but make no mistake: what happens in Belgrade and Bogota on Saturday is just as important as what goes down in Dublin.

For it's in these far-flung corners of the globe, away from the spotlight, that the minnows are making their moves, singing their anthems with gusto, and living out their dreams of one day making it to a Rugby World Cup.

Venezuela better than Zimbabwe? As Australian commentator Chris Handy would say, 'Go you good thing!'

Send Duane your thoughts on this column.

  • Duane Heath is a freelance sportswriter who has written about the game for News24, Rugby World, IRB World of Rugby and the Sunday Times.

  • Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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