Namibia qualified for a fifth successive Rugby World Cup by thumping hosts Madagascar 89-10 yesterday to win the African preliminaries and book a place in Pool C at the tournament alongside defending champions New Zealand.
Namibia finished level on two wins each with Kenya and Zimbabwe at the end of the four-team tournament, but qualified with more bonus points.
Their task was made easier when Zimbabwe beat Kenya 28-10, setting Namibia a target of beating Madagascar by 53 points to qualify. They passed that target by half-time, leading 63-0 at the break and going on to secure their berth at next year’s finals in England and Wales, where they will also play Argentina, Georgia and Tonga.
Zimbabwe head to the repechage after their win over Kenya, who caused a major surprise by beating Namibia on the first day of competition and needed only to avoid defeat yesterday to qualify for their first World Cup appearance.
Zimbabwe now meet Russia in a one-off play-off match and, if they win, the victors of the other repechage play-off between Hong Kong and Uruguay. The decisive tie will be played over home and away legs for a place in Pool A.
In Super Rugby, meanwhile, New South Wales Waratahs looked every inch champions-elect as they locked up top spot yesterday, but the play-off picture beneath them was not much clearer after the penultimate week of the regular season.
Full-back Israel Folau’s 12th try of the campaign helped the Waratahs to a dominant 44-16 victory over the Otago Highlanders that gave them an unassailable 53 points and guaranteed them home advantage for the semi-finals, and potentially the final.
The Waratahs and South Africa’s Sharks were already assured of topping their national conferences before the weekend and the Canterbury Crusaders were the only other team to join them.
The Crusaders top the New Zealand standings with 46 points after Dan Carter helped them to a 21-13 victory over Auckland Blues on Saturday that earned them play-off rugby for the 13th straight season. That leaves three places still up for grabs in the final weekend of the regular season, which is followed by the four-team wildcard play-offs.
The Highlanders, who have 42 points, could still overtake the Crusaders and win the New Zealand conference if they can prevail in a South Island showdown with the seven-times champions in Christchurch next weekend.
They could also see their first play-off campaign in 12 years go up in smoke if they lose, though, with the defending champions Waikato Chiefs, Wellington Hurricanes, ACT Brumbies and Western Force all still in the hunt.
The Hurricanes, who have 41 points, are most likely to be squeezed out as they finish the regular season with a bye-week, which last year would have earned them four points but in 2014 gets them nothing. They were 24-16 losers in Hamilton on Friday as the Chiefs wrenched themselves out of a tailspin of three defeats to keep their hopes of a third straight title alive – although they could have done with a bonus point.
The Chiefs are now tied on 40 points with the Brumbies and the surprise package Force, who outlasted the Queensland Reds 30-20 in Perth to remain on track for their maiden play-off campaign. The Brumbies had a bye over the weekend and return to action against the Force in Canberra next Friday in a crunch encounter with a place in the wildcard round on the line.
Jake White led the Brumbies to the final last year but his charges, the Sharks, did major damage to their hopes of a first Super Rugby title when they were stunned 27-20 by the Cheetahs.
The Durban-based Sharks will definitely be South Africa’s only representatives in the knockout stage, though, after the three-times champion Bulls crashed out of play-off contention with a 16-0 defeat by the Stormers.
It is to Newlands and a match against the in-form Stormers next weekend that the Sharks take their bid for a top-two finish, which would ensure they skip the wildcard round and have home advantage in one of the semi-finals the following week.