BY DANIEL NHAKANISO
IT has been billed as the final before the final, with many tipping the team which wins tonight’s semi-final to go on and win Sunday’s Rugby Africa Cup final and book the automatic ticket to next year’s Rugby World Cup.
Matches between rivals Zimbabwe and Namibia are among the most highly anticipated fixtures in African rugby and biggest on the continent.
And it doesn’t get bigger than tonight’s colossal clash at the Stade Maurice David in Aix-en-Provence.
To keep their hopes of qualifying for their first World Cup since 1991, the Sables must move mountains against a well-oiled Namibia, which hammered Burkina Faso 71-5 in the quarterfinals last Friday.
The Sables are also on a high after registering a convincing 38-11 win over a strong Ivory Coast side composed entirely of players plying their trade in France.
And head coach Brendan Dawson is looking to keep the winning momentum alive after naming a strong team for this evening’s match.
The former Sables skipper made four changes to his starting 15, all in the forwards’ pack as he looks for physicality upfront to match the Namibians, while also keeping some firepower on the replacements to finish the game.
The trio of loose head prop Tyran Fagan, hooker Mathew Mandioma and tighthead prop Cleopas Kundiona will be tasked with laying the foundation against what is expected to be a physical opponent.
University of Johannesburg captain Kelvin Kanenungo, who had a solid debut on Friday, makes way for the experienced Tapiwa Tsomondo at open-side flank is the only other change.
Zimbabwe will have the same exciting backline which unlocked Ivory Coast with aplomb in the quarterfinal clash.
While the set-piece was seen as instrumental in last week’s victory, it was the backline’s scintillating display which set up the victory against the Elephants.
The well-known flair and speed of Zimbabwe’s backs — including full back Tapiwa Mafura, a recent Currie Cup winner with the Pumas – centres Takudzwa Chieza, Matthew McNab and wingers Shingirai Katsvere and Shayne Makombe, will again be their strongest attacking weapon tonight.
In past meetings against Namibia, the Sables have tended to start strongly, and dominate the first half before running out of steam in the latter stages of the match.
This happened during the latch encounter between the two matches at the Stellenbosch Challenge in November last year when the Sables led 7-5 at the break before going down 41-10 at the end.
Dawson says he has made sure there won’t be a repeat of the same mistake and expects everyone in the match-day squad to play a part as they seek to put on a complete 80-minute performance.
“I’m very happy with the squad that we’ve got and the side we’ve selected is a strong and powerful team. Also, the guys who are going to come off the bench and finish the game are very strong,” he said.
“For the first time in a while, we’ve got a powerful squad that can carry on and enhance what we are trying to achieve in the last 20 to 30 minutes of the game. So, I’m really happy with that and I think it’s going to be a very good squad.”
Namibia are aiming to secure the continental qualifying spot for the seventh consecutive Rugby World Cup, while the Sables, who featured at the 1987 and 1991 World Cups are seeking to end a 31-year wait for their fourth appearance at the global rugby showpiece.
The 2023 edition is set to take place in France.
Sables starting line-up (1-15): Tyran Fagan, Matthew Mandioma, Cleopas Kundiona, Sean Beevor, Godfrey Muzanagrwo, Jason Fraser, Tapiwa Tsomondo, Nyasha Tarusenga, Hilton Mudariki (captain), Marcus Nel, Shingirai Katsvere, Takudzwa Chieza, Matthew McNab, Shayne Makombe, Tapiwa Mafura
Replacements: Liam Larkan, Victor Mupunga, Bornwell Gwinji, Godwin Mangenje, Kelvin Kanenungo, Kyle Golloway, Takudzwa Musingwingi, Ngoni Chibuwe
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