African hopefuls seeking to secure a place at the 2019 Rugby World Cup begin their campaign towards the finals in Japan this weekend as the Rugby Africa Gold Cup, effectively the first round of qualifiers, kicks off across the continent.
Heavyweights South Africa are the only team from the continent that is guaranteed a place at the World Cup next year, with the likes of Zimbabwe, now led by ex-Springboks coach Peter de Villiers, Namibia and Kenya hoping to join them.
RUGBY AFRICA GOLD CUP 🏆🏉🥇6 Days to #Kickoff! Join #Zimbabwe vs 🇿🇼#Morocco🇲🇦 & #Namibia🇳🇦vs #Tunisia🇹🇳 games on 16th June.#RAGC18 #RoadtoJapan19 @RugbyAfrique @WorldRugby @zimbabwerugby @RugbyWorldCup pic.twitter.com/YeTCvxQwoR— Rugby Afrique (@RugbyAfrique) June 9, 2018
Zimbabwe, who have not been to the World Cup since it was hosted in England in 1991, start with a home clash against Morocco in Harare.
It should be a gentle opener for The Sables, who pulled off something of a coup to lure South Africa's 2011 World Cup coach De Villiers to the team.
He has been preparing the side at the High Performance Centre in Pretoria and says they are ready for competition.
"Bringing the boys here showed them another dimension of how high performance sport should be done," De Villiers told Sables TV.
"It's a different mentality, a different outlook and then everything is around them so you can easily be lost in circumstances like this if you are not used to it.
"They adapted quickly to this and they brought it onto the field. What worries me at the moment is that I had to do six-months work in three weeks; I might have overworked them a bit but luckily we have a few more weeks before we hit our first Test week.
"It is now my responsibility to manage the players and keep them fresh; to go onto the field fresh for our first game which is so important."
De Villiers admits that getting Zimbabwe to the World Cup is going to an uphill battle, given their history, the growing pedigree of other nations and the fact his players hold amateur status in the game.
"This is my biggest challenge but then again, I have got a good medical team around me that will advise me," he said.
"They tested all the players, they were all assessed medically and we know where they stand and we now know how to handle them; to really give them that top notch. So I'm really, really happy to know where we are now."
Morocco are coached by Frenchman Pierre Chadebech and have never appeared at the World Cup before.
Namibia are the side with by far the most World Cup pedigree, having appeared at the last five tournaments, though a record of 19 games played and 19 defeats tells its own story.
They were much more competitive in 2015 though and can call on a number of players bred through the South African schooling and provincial system, which is a massive boost to their chances.
Welsh coach Phil Davies, who led the side so well in England three years ago, has been retained to take them to another World Cup, but he says this will be the toughest qualification process in some time as they open against Uganda in Windhoek on Saturday.
"This competition will be Namibia's toughest World Cup qualifier for the last ten years. Despite the challenge, we are confident because we have a very strong team with the talent, the mindset and the attitude needed to compete in this type of event," said Davies.
Uganda have been training in South Africa's Free State province under coach John Duncan and are also well-prepared.
"This camp will give us access to the expertise of coaches from the Cheetahs club to put the finishing touches on our preparations. We are eager to get out there and compete against the best in Africa," says South African Duncan.
The other two nations not involved in the opening weekend's matches are Tunisia, coached by South African Jaco Stoumann, and Kenya, who are led by the New Zealand duo of Ian Snook and Murray Roulston.
Kenya were due to build up to the tournament with a training camp in South Africa, but this was called off at the last minute due to a lack of funds.
The qualification competition involving the six teams is played in a round-robin format, with the final matches to be played on August 18.
The team with the most wins qualifies automatically for the World Cup in Japan, while the second-placed team goes into the Repechage competition that sees them face-off against nations on other continents for a place at the finals, which could take Africa's tally to three teams.