Former South Africa coach Peter de Villiers has taken charge of the Zimbabwe team, his first high-profile job since an eventful time with the Springboks.

De Villiers has a two-year contract with Zimbabwe and the challenge of getting the southern Africans back to the Rugby World Cup next year for the first time since 1991.

Zimbabwe was the first African team to play at the World Cup, in 1987 and 1991 while South Africa was still isolated from international sport because of apartheid. But Zimbabwe hasn't been back at the sport's showpiece since, overtaken by a number of others as Africa's next best after the Springboks.

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De Villiers' time as coach of the Boks from 2008-11 was successful in stages despite doubts over a perceived lack of previous experience. The first non-white to coach South Africa, de Villiers led the team to a series win over the British and Irish Lions and a Tri Nations title in 2009, yet never really won over the South African public.

"This is the greatest day of my life for one reason only, because people believe in me," the 60-year-old de Villiers said in Zimbabwe.

The arrival of a former Springboks coach is a big moment for Zimbabwe, but it also marks a return for de Villiers after the criticism he received while coaching South Africa appeared to have stunted his career.

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His tendency to make controversial comments didn't help. He once accused New Zealand's team of cheating and appearing to defend one of his players for eye- gouging.

De Villiers' appointment was described as "a statement of intent" by Zimbabwe Rugby Union president Aaron Jani.

"No one will ever wave the magic wand for us to become a force in world rugby," Jani said.

"It is up to us as a team and as country to start believing in ourselves."

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Zimbabwe must finish in the top two in the Africa Cup competition later this year to have a chance of qualifying for the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan. If they win the tournament they qualify automatically. If they finish second, they get another shot at the World Cup through a play-off.

"I can't promise we will win everything," de Villiers said. "The only promise is that we will prepare, not only prepare, but we will be ready."