From facing the mighty All Blacks at London’s Olympic Stadium to taking on Uganda in their bonkers back yard, it’s been a bizarre year.
These aren’t the kind of issues international coaches usually have to deal with, but they have been part and parcel of Namibia’s senior rugby team mentor Phil Davies’ life in the southern African country.
The former Wales forward has seen most things during his 46-cap playing career and his two decades of coaching with the likes of Leeds, the Scarlets, Worcester, Cardiff Blues and RGC. But nothing could really prepare you for the African adventure he has been on over the past couple of years.
From facing the mighty All Blacks at London’s Olympic Stadium to taking on Uganda in their bonkers back yard, it has been a pretty eventful journey to say the least.
The wheelchair debacle and the racism row…
Davies first went out to Namibia as a technical advisor in 2014, but then, just before last autumn’s World Cup, he found himself in charge of the national team after wheelchair-bound head coach Danie Vermeulen quit.
It was a remarkable tale, with Vermeulen citing accusations of racism, Union interference in team selection and stolen wheelchairs among his reasons for leaving. Davies was the man left to pick up the pieces with the World Cup just around the corner.
“The whole thing was just bizarre,” Davies recalls. “It was just crazy what happened. But I’ve been through some interesting times with people in Wales saying one thing and doing something else, so I was pretty aware of people changing their mind and dealing with uncertainty.”
“You just try and do your job as best you can and have a plan. This, however, has proved to be a job with a difference. It has been a huge eye opener,” admitted the 52-year-old.
“It’s a different culture, a different approach. There are certain things you have to deal with in Africa you won’t deal with in our rugby. That’s been interesting. You’ve got to have a lot of patience. It’s a case of you tell them, then you tell them again, then you tell them again!”
“You have to be very disciplined in sticking to your plans because they tend to like to jump about now and again. You also have to deal with selection. It’s not simple out there. You have to make selections as objective as possible. They will select on emotion and that becomes very subjective”
“You have got to know the culture you are dealing with. There’s no actual colour quota as such. It’s just being respectful and aware of integration and giving people opportunities to represent their country. It’s a real mishmash in terms of the squad. We’ve got a couple of professional players, a fair few semi-professionals and amateur boys”
“It’s a real challenge to balance the training programme to suit all of those guys. But it has just been brilliant. I’ve really enjoyed hands-on coaching again. It’s the most I’ve done in the last ten years. I hardly did any at the Blues at all.”
The daunting Rugby World Cup challenge…
Namibia were handed a daunting group at the World Cup, with New Zealand, Argentina, Georgia and Tonga for company in Pool C, but they emerged with their heads held high and having made lots of friends.
“It was just a fantastic opportunity to go and enjoy the occasion. There was pressure on us in that we wanted as a country to perform credibly and World Rugby wanted us to do so as well as they had invested in the programme. The board were all a bit fearful before the New Zealand game. But everything about it was amazing. To play against New Zealand at the Olympic Stadium and come out with credibility was fantastic”
“We still lost by 50 odd points and lost all the games in our group. But I think we captured the imagination with the way we played, adds Davies.
The unforgettable trip to Uganda…
A very different experience was to follow. It was a case of going from one extreme to another for Davies, as the Olympic Stadium was replaced by the Kyadondo rugby club field in Kampala for June’s Africa Cup clash with Uganda.
It’s a trip he is unlikely to forget in a hurry. “Uganda was just something else. There are a two and a half million people living in a place the size of Cardiff. You are bumper to bumper and you’ve got these motorbike taxis with about four people on them, dodging in out of traffic like you’ve never seen. Talk about special awareness, these taxi drivers are unbelievable,”
“They get through gaps the size of a blinking Rizla paper. It’s crazy. And there’s never an accident with them. I’ve never seen anything like it,” he explained.
But then, come match-time in Kampala, it was something else again. “In all my 40 years in rugby, I’ve never experienced an atmosphere like that,” he said.
“It was just mental, absolutely bonkers. They started partying at 11 o’clock in the morning and they were still at it at 3am the following morning. The atmosphere during the game was incredible. It was like a carnival for 80 minutes. There was about 10,000 people in there going mad”
As for the match itself, well that was also pretty remarkable. “It was about 35 degrees out on the pitch. It was just a crazy game, with 70 odd points scored,” said Davies.
Returning to Wales and the future…
Over the last year or so, Davies has combined his time in Namibia – where he spends about 14 weeks during the year – with coaching RGC 1404. It’s proved another rewarding experience, with the north Walian club securing promotion from the Championship to the Premiership at the end of last season.
“I want to try and help Namibia qualify for the next World Cup. Then, after that, I will look to get a professional coaching job.
“I think I am coaching, organising and managing maybe better than I’ve ever done. I want to put that experience back into a professional outfit that can benefit from it at some point. I have coached for the last 20 years and I’ve loved doing it. Rugby has been my life and I am enjoying it as much as ever.”