Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, Welsh-born Namibia coach PHIL DAVIES talks about the daunting task of facing the Springboks, what tactical trends we can anticipate in Japan and his post-World Cup plans.
Sport24 asked: How would you sum up your Namibian coaching journey?
Phil Davies: It has been an interesting journey with Namibia that's for sure. Having started out as a consultant to the national team, I assumed the head coaching position back in 2015 and took the team to the World Cup in the UK. (Namibia failed to win any of their pool matches, but earned plaudits owing to their one-point defeat to Georgia in their penultimate fixture). In the four years since the last World Cup, we have tried to build a new team and fresh player philosophy. I believe that is what my coaching staff and I have done and it must be said that we qualified for the 2019 World Cup in Japan in record style. In terms of the most rewarding aspect of the job, it’s seeing a group of young guys who are exceptionally proud of playing for Namibia. We have tried to develop a bigger pool of players who actually live and work in Namibia and it’s something we have done. In terms of the challenges, it’s about trying to marry professional players with semi-professionals and amateurs. The (lack of) funding and travel has also been challenging and demanding. However, the privilege of being head coach of the national team far outweighs the challenges. It’s very satisfying seeing a group of young men so proud of the country they are representing and what they are doing.
Sport24 asked: What do you make of your opponents drawn in Pool B?
Phil Davies: During our World Cup squad announcement, I said it was an easy pool. That was a bit of a tongue-in-cheek comment for sure. South Africa, New Zealand, Canada and Italy are four fantastic teams with amazing records in the World Cup. Italy have grown as a rugby nation in the last 20 years and Canada have a rich history at World Cups and have had some famous matches themselves. Meanwhile, South Africa and New Zealand are former and current champions. Our task is a mighty one, but one we are all excited about. We want to go to Japan and try to prove as competitive as we possibly can be and overachieve in terms of the performances we delivered in the UK. That is our main aim and if we can do that we can have a World Cup we can be proud of. We are not too worried about the scoreboard and will only look at it at the end of the game. It’s a case of us being as competitive as possible in terms of our performances and hopefully that will return us plenty of pride and admiration from the people we play for and the public who watch. We have a young group of players with loads of energy, skill and talent and we are looking to do ourselves and Namibia proud. I want people to see we made a contribution to the biggest rugby tournament in the world.
Sport24 asked: What does it mean to play and coach at a Rugby World Cup?
Phil Davies: I played for Wales at the 1987 and 1991 World Cups. The first World Cup was fantastic and was a long time ago. As a coach, I have done the 2015 World Cup and I have also experienced the under-20 Junior World Championships in Argentina and Japan. Tournament coaching and playing is unique. You have to deal with the short turnarounds and have to be very organised, clear and concise in the way that you play your rugby. It’s all about managing your energy and time well and having a real clarity in the way you play the game. We will have a good week to 10 days in Japan prior to our opening encounter against Italy. We will be ready to go as we have had four years of preparation and, during a Rugby World Cup year, it’s all about fine-tuning what you are trying to do.
Sport24 asked: Your assessment of the Springbok loose forward combination?
Phil Davies: As a former loose forward myself, I have been impressed with the backrow combination of Duane Vermeulen, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Siya Kolisi. Both Du Toit and Kolisi boast a massive work-rate, while Vermeulen is an out-and-out ball-carrier. However, the latter is also a very skilful player. The loose trio balance is good in terms of work-rate, speed and power. They have got it all really and they are a very impressive trio and possess effective line-out prowess as well, so it’s a very strong combination. In a broader sense, I believe Rassie Erasmus has given the team collective plenty of direction. Moreover, they look really fit, powerful and very well-organised. The Springboks are on a very noticeable upward curve. The South Africans are going to prove a massive challenge for us on 28 September (at the City of Toyota Stadium). However, big challenges provide massive opportunities and that’s what we are looking forward to really. (Namibia are placed 23rd in the World Rugby rankings, while the Springboks are the fourth-ranked nation, having displaced Wales).
Sport24 asked: How do you assess the north versus south divide in the game?
Phil Davies: I’m not sure if there is a divide between the north and south anymore. You could look back on my playing days and there was a difference in terms of preparation and timing of seasons, which always seemed to favour the south more. However, now all southern and northern hemisphere teams are well travelled and they play against each other on a regular basis. I think the 2019 edition will prove the most open World Cup that we have seen for quite a while. New Zealand are obviously there as main contenders, as are South Africa, England and Wales. Ireland and Australia are always come good World Cup time and are smart rugby nations well-coached by Michael Cheika and Joe Schmidt. Meanwhile, you can never discount the French because we don’t know what they are going to bring. There are six or seven teams who could win the Webb Ellis Cup. In terms of the hosts, Japan are playing incredibly quick rugby and the speed of their game at the moment is akin to Formula One pace. It’s going to be very interesting to see how the home nation fares and I think it’s going to be a fantastically well-organised World Cup that could break all sorts of records both on and off the field. In terms of tactical trends, there will be games where ball-in-hand play will dominate and then, particularly during the latter stages of the tournament, the kicking game will come into focus. I think we will see a smart kicking game from teams in order to dominate field position. The aerial battles will come to the fore and the kicks in-behind to make the back three turn across and chase back will be prevalent. There will be kicking trends as well as teams playing multi-phase rugby with high ball-in-play time. We’re set to see ball retention from greater distances.
Sport24 asked: What does your post-World Cup coaching future look like?
Phil Davies: I will finish up with Namibia after the 2019 World Cup. I will still retain links to the Welwitschias but my time as head coach will come to a close, having done five years. I enjoy coaching tier-two rugby but I would like to get back to coaching professional rugby one day whether it’s PRO14, Gallagher Premiership or Super Rugby. I have never coached in Super Rugby so that prospect appeals to me as well. I will wait and see what opportunities arise post-World Cup. (Davies has coached extensively in Wales and England and also guided the Welsh under-20 team). Any Welshman would tell you that they would like to coach their senior national team and I’m no different, but I have been on a very interesting coaching journey working with Namibia. The anticipation of what’s next is always exciting. However, we must make sure that we do a good job at the World Cup and then I will help Namibia after the event by offering support and I’ll go from there.