Madagascar staged a memorable first day for the Africa Cup today. South Africa and Kenya took the points, but what was likely the largest ever crowd to watch women’s rugby in Africa took the glory.
To any list of “must visit” rugby grounds we should perhaps now add Stade Makis in Madagascar’s capital Antananarivo. The loud, enthusiastic, and knowledgeable crowd made opening two games in the first ever Africa Cup Division One tournament an unforgettable experience.
The day took a little while to get going as top seeds South Africa opened against West African champions Cameroun, who were only playing their fifth test match – ever.
The ‘Boks had to work hard, especially with the Cameroonian flyhalf whose defensive kicking was both accurate and long, frequently relieving pressure on her line by finding space behind the South African defence.
But South Africa - a team that played almost as many games in the last World Cup than Cameroun have played in their entire rugby history – was always going to be too strong, and however well west Africans defended it was like trying to stop the tide coming in. The ‘Boks were relentless.
The ‘Boks played with great continuity and their support play was top notch, while – as is so often the case when smaller teams take a big step up - the Cameroonians struggled with their discipline had no answer to the SA pack, which led to three first half maul tries - two by Roseline Botes - and a penalty try from an illegally sacked drive.
South Africa also scored a few superb counter-attacking tries with the backs enjoying the space and putting each other away through some deft offloads and good handling in general. Their only real negative from the first half was when Nompumelelo Mathe, who scored a superb try just before the break, was yellow carded for a danegrous tackle after 25 minutes.
With only 14 players on the field, Aspihe Mayaba celebrated her Test debut with her first try for South Africa, rounding off a sublime move that started in the Boks' half.
The start of the second half belonged to Mayaba, who scored twice in quick succession for her hat-trick on debut, with the South Africans again exploiting space out wide. She scored her fourth try two minutes before the end.
Mkhari scored all three her tries after the break, while Lindelwa Gwala also crashed over from a maul in a second half during which the team in green and gold stepped up another gear and ran riot late in the match as the ‘Boks ran out 87-0 winners.
But next up was the game everyone had been waiting for. The stands on either touchline, far from empty for the first game, now filled as Madagascar prepared for their first ever home game against Kenya.
Although this would only be their eighth ever test, the “Makis” had beaten Kenya twice in Nairobi in 2021, so a close game was expected.
The home team took an early lead with a penalty, but were oddly subdued for much of the rest of the first half, almost as if the occasion had got to them, and near the end gave away two yellow cards in quick succession which allowed Kenya to turn a 7-3 lead into a much more decisive 17-3 advantage in the final couple of minutes of the half.
The second half was a different matter. The Makis came out and – despite still being down to 13 for the opening minutes – hit Kenya like an express train. They countered the physicality of the Kenyans from the first half by throwing the ball around as if it were a sevens game and soon pulled a try back. A great conversion took the score to 10-17.
Inexperience then showed as the Makis just took their foot off the accelerator for a few second from the restart, which allowed Kenya to return their advantage back to more than a try, making it 10-22, and then another, making the score 10-29.
But the crowd were now lifted by the performance of their team as they fought back with two tries closing the game to 20-29.
The final stages of the game were frantic, but Kenya’s experience allowed them to hold out for a win that should see them into WXV3 in the Autumn.