Teams head to Harare with eye on Olympic prize

Twelve nations will compete in the Rugby Africa Men’s Sevens 2023 at Harare Sports Club this weekend, with one ticket to Paris 2024 up for grabs.

Harare Sports Club will host the Rugby Africa Men’s Sevens 2023 this weekend as 12 nations compete for a ticket to the Paris 2024 Olympic Games.

Kenya and South Africa have appeared at both Olympic men’s sevens tournaments since rugby’s reintroduction to the Games at Rio 2016, but they will face tough competition in Zimbabwe where 10 other teams have their sights set on glory.

Algeria won the qualifying tournament in Mauritius in June to secure their place in Harare alongside Nigeria and the Ivory Coast, who finished second and third respectively.

They will be joined on Saturday’s start line by hosts Zimbabwe, Madagascar, Tunisia, Zambia, Namibia, Uganda and Burkina Faso.

Whoever emerges victorious from the two-day tournament will take their place in Paris next year alongside the already qualified men’s teams of France, New Zealand, Argentina, Fiji, Australia, Uruguay, Ireland and USA.

The dream will not be over for the runners-up or the winners of the third-place play-off, either, with both qualifying for the Olympic repechage tournament.

Specman bolsters Blitzboks

Having qualified for both Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020 via their performance in HSBC SVNS, this is the first time that South Africa have needed to take the regional route after finishing seventh in 2023.

Blitzboks coach Sandile Ngcobo has picked a strong squad for the tournament in Harare, welcoming several experienced players back into the fold.

Selvyn Davids, Zain Davids and Ronald Brown have all recovered from injuries that limited their game time during the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series 2023, while former Springbok wingers Rosko Specman and Travis Ismaiel have also made the cut.

The return of Specman is particularly timely given captain Siviwe Soyizwapi has been ruled out through injury, alongside Mfundo Ndhlovu and Shaun Williams. Impi Visser will lead the side in Soyizwapi’s absence.

“He [Specman] will basically replace ‘Shakes’ (Soyizwapi) in the squad and will mainly play on the wing for us in this tournament. We all know what he brings to a team,” Ngcobo said.

“The return of playmakers such as Selvyn, Justin and Ronald does give us nice options, but this will have to be a team effort.

“Our forwards are crucial to allow the playmakers the opportunity to express themselves. Nothing has changed from our ‘team first’ attitude and philosophy.”

The Blitzboks will kick off their campaign against Pool A rivals Ivory Coast at 10:50 local time (GMT+2) on Saturday before matches against Tunisia and Madagascar.

Kenya keen to maintain proud record

Five-time winners Kenya have been drawn in Pool B in Harare, alongside Zambia, Namibia and Nigeria, and will hope to put the disappointment of missing out on SVNS qualification behind them to reach a third Games.

The Shujaa were beaten by Canada in the final of the World Rugby Sevens Series 2024 Play-off at Twickenham in May, but coach Kevin Wambua is confident his side has what it takes to complete a hat-trick of Olympic appearances.

Wambua has been able to recall Vincent Onyala, who returns as co-captain alongside Tony Omondi, as part of an experienced squad.

“The primary goal is to perform strongly in the pool stage and secure a top position by the end of day one, ultimately advancing to the quarter-finals,” Wambua said.

“The squad is determined and believes they have what it takes to excel in the competition.”

Zimbabwe have featured in both of the two Olympic repechage tournaments to date, and their quest to go one step further will start with matches against Burkina Faso, Algeria and reigning champions Uganda – who beat them in last year’s final – in Pool C.

The hosts have completed a week-long training camp in Pretoria, and the Cheetahs’ former captain Hilton Mudariki has made himself available to help their push for Olympic qualification.

“I’d put sevens aside for a couple of years just to focus on the 15s but having had a couple of conversations with (assistant) coach Ricky [Chirengende] over the last couple of months, he asked me whether I’d be interested in coming back and contributing in whatever way I could in helping the team qualify,” he said.

“It’s something that I couldn’t turn down. Having just missed out on the Olympics qualifiers in 2016 when we lost to Kenya and being part of that, I thought that I had to come back and try and give back as much as I could.”

The top two teams from each pool at the end of Saturday’s action, as well as the two best third-place finishers, will qualify for Sunday’s quarter-finals.