Springboks clash can steel Namibia for first Rugby World Cup win - Jacques Burger

When you have suffered 19 successive defeats at the Rugby World Cup, being drawn in the same pool as title favourites New Zealand and South Africa should be a time for national angst, but Namibia are ready to prove they are making significant strides on the international stage.

With around 900 players, and only a handful playing professionally outside the country, the odds are always heavily stacked against Phil Davies, the Welwitschias' head coach, and his squad. However, the World Cup in Japan could signal the end of their search for a first victory in the tournament, and Namibians will be glued to their television screens when they face Canada in Kamaishi on Oct. 13.

Namibia (No. 23) are the lowest-ranked side in the World Cup, and Canada (No. 22) are closest to them in the rankings table having been the final team to qualify for Japan.

Namibian rugby legend Jacques Burger expects an unprecedented national celebration to break out if that first win can be achieved, and the former team captain is undaunted by Namibia's match with South Africa on Sept. 28 in Toyota City, which could deliver another heavy defeat.

Burger believes Namibia can take pride from standing toe-to-toe with South Africa and then the All Blacks, whom they play in Tokyo on Oct. 6, and use that emotion to bolster their chances of victory over Canada. Having lost 87-0 to South Africa at the 2011 World Cup, Namibia were more competitive against New Zealand four years later, losing 58-14 in London.

Burger credits Davies for the continued subsequent improvements that delivered a 30-28 win over Uruguay in the build-up to this World Cup, and a resilient effort against Italy in their tournament opener in Osaka, where they lost 47-22 only after conceding three tries within the space of 10 minutes either side of halftime.

"For me it was always exciting to get an opportunity to play against the best in the world because you can then measure yourself," Burger told ESPN.

"That has to be the attitude and you want to walk off the pitch at the end of the game with no regrets.

"South Africa will be incredibly tough, and if you can stay in the game by competing physically with them then you will gain so much confidence; the same is true when you face the All Blacks, as we did in 2015 in London.

"Two decent performances against many people's favourites for the World Cup will take the Namibian guys a long way, and you can then use it to win games. It will make a world of difference for that final game with Canada.

"Of course it is really hard to think about Namibia beating South Africa because we have less than 900 players in the country, who play in an average amateur league.

"In 2015 we put in a good performance against the All Blacks but couldn't get the really quality ball we needed. We realised a bit too late that those guys are human and are not machines.

"That performance against the All Blacks was a game changer for rugby in Namibia. I know to the rest of the world it didn't seem a big thing, but to score that one try against the All Blacks was massive and back home people were going crazy. Every time we play South Africa or New Zealand our boys are taking on their rugby heroes."

Burger went agonisingly close to leading Namibia to their first World Cup win in 2015, when they lost 17-16 to Georgia having seen their captain forced off early by concussion in his final Test.

"In the 2015 World Cup there was a massive improvement in terms of the number of points scored against us, and Phil Davies has to take a lot of credit for that improvement. We could have won the Tonga and Georgia games in 2015, and I was massively fired up for that Georgia match -- and nine minutes of the game I was concussed. The guys put in a massive effort and just came up short.

"We must have that belief when we go onto the pitch against Canada and make history. That has to be the mind set in all of the games including playing South Africa, New Zealand and Italy, and if you do that then you can walk away with no regrets.

"I am not saying Canada are weak, but if you look at how close we are in the rankings we have this opportunity to do something special with the whole of Namibia watching on television. We love our rugby even though we are a small nation, and no matter what he margin is in defeat we will be proud of them."

Rugby fans in Jersey, one of the Channel Islands, will also be keeping a close eye on Namibia's campaign. Janco Venter, plays No. 8 for the English Championship club and Namibia, and he scored two tries in the win over Uruguay.

"I think I am the only Namibian in Jersey," Venter, who could earn himself a contract with one of Europe's top clubs by impressing in Japan, told ESPN.

"The whole reason I went to Jersey is because it is such a good stepping stone up to the Premiership. The World Cup is a hell of an opportunity for a lot of guys in the Namibia squad who have never had the chance to show what they can do. If they can get seen, they will not only boost their careers, but the whole of the country.

"We don't get the chance to play many Tier 1 countries, and four years ago we did a lot to disrupt New Zealand and were proud of our performance. It was amazing to face the haka, and who would thought that four years later there will be a chance to do that again.

"In previous years we wanted to be able to compete, but we have a different mind-set now and that is down to Phil Davies, our coach.

"Phil is an unbelievable leader; he has changed our mentality, and we now go out to win. He has created a really positive attitude and the players love him, and this has had a massive effect on Namibian rugby."

Davies, who played for Wales, would become a Namibian national hero if he could lead the team to victory over Canada in his final tournament as head coach. It has been a demanding assignment over the past five years with Namibia, but Davies is convinced the foundations for a much brighter future are in place, thanks to financial help from World Rugby.

"In recent years we have developed a lot of more depth and the age profile of the team has gone down from 31 [at the 2015 World Cup] to 24. There has been a lot of progress, and we have built a good team ethos and culture.

"We are largely a semi-pro squad, and in Namibia we normally have two training sessions a day with weights at 7.30 a.m. until 9 a.m. and then a training session from 4.30 p.m. to 6.30 p.m., and in between that the boys will be working

"We know where we are in terms of performance level and ball in play, and our statistics are growing and moving in the right direction. It is down to the huge effort of the players and the staff, and it is quite exciting to see how competitive we could become under the circumstances we are preparing under.

"The Namibian Rugby Union are trying hard, and World Rugby have been fantastic along with the South African Rugby Union with their support.

"You have to give massive credit to World Rugby's Tier 2 program, and I think the support we get in terms of high performance and grants to develop structures is fantastic.

"Unions like Uruguay have done a really great job with a population of 3.4million with just 4,500 people playing rugby; they have battled up the world rankings, which is phenomenal. They are a really good example of what can be done with prudent financial planning.

"It has been an interesting time, and when we took this on, one of the things we talked to World Rugby about was creating a legacy; and we have created a national academy and a high performance centre along the way."

The stage is set for Davies and his men to create history for this rugby-mad African nation.