IN 1987 Zimbabwe were there. Four years later, we were there again — but never again.
Exactly 14 years after they last took part in the rugby World Cup, all
that remains is absolutely nothing to show for Zimbabwe’s run with the big guns at the prestigious tournament.
Never has Zimbabwe been a rugby powerhouse, but at least all the signs were there the southern African nation would be one day. In 1987 and 1991 Zimbabwe lost all their three matches at both World Cup editions, but the gratification was that a small fish had swam with the big ones.
Today, not only has the small fish grown smaller, it seems to have resigned to fate after years of self-inflicted misery. It’s really no wonder Zimbabwe are now ranked a lowly 46.
In Africa, Zimbabwe now rank lower than Morocco, Namibia, the Ivory Coast and Madagascar. South Africa have always been way above.
In the mid-1990s the Zimbabwe Rugby Union (ZRU) embarked on a two-pronged development programme under British coach Colin Osborne that we all hoped would make the country a permanent fixture at the Holy Grail of rugby.
The programme entailed the spreading of the game to high-density areas and rural schools. It also involved the development and certification of coaches from the basic level one to level three.
It was refreshing to see the euphoria Osborne created as he made forays into teachers’ colleges where scores of level one and level two coaches were certified. The idea was to equip the trainee teachers with skills to take the game to junior and secondary schools after they graduate from college.
Level-three courses were conducted for those interested in coaching senior league teams and provincial sides. No one would believe there are over 30 such coaches in the country today who either have taken the backseat or are no longer interested in the sort anymore.
Development coaches were dispatched to all provinces to conduct level one coaching courses and look after the ZRU development programmes. Results of the well-funded and coordinated development programme were immediately visible and tangible.
It’s the reason the police at Morris Depot and the soldiers at Cranborne Barracks could not be left out. Even my brother learnt the basics of rugby at the Suri-Suri base of the Air Force when he was already nearing his 30s in the mid-90s.
It was just fun as those in the high-density and rural areas who used to wonder how the “egg-shaped” ball was played caught on the gospel. Mabvuku, Mbare and Zengeza high-density areas as well as colleges and rural and boarding schools could not be left out.
All the talent the development programmed churned out would be channelled to national league teams, ensuring strong competition. The winner in the end would be Zimbabwe.
During the same era Zimbabwe were also involved at the highest level down south. Known as the Zambezi Sables, the country played in South Africa’s Bankfin Cup, now known as the Absa Currie Cup. The competition gave local players exposure at the highest level.
It was not long before former Zimbabwe winger David Maidza crossed the border to play in South Africa. Others like Ian Noble followed suit to pioneer the great trek of local talent in South Africa.
Those were the heyday and all that died when unprofessional and greedy people thought they could do the job better than the ZRU administration led by Basil Forster-Jones and later by Frank Putterill.
The late 1990s was a period of madness when affirmative action was preferred ahead of structured development. Professional administrators were either forced out or resigned.
It was sad to see Australian Mark Donato being flushed out of the system in the name of indigenising the sport when we still needed to feed on his expertise.
While everyone agrees it was necessary to spread a sport that was previously a preserve of the white minority, a few greedy and directionless zealots just messed up big time.
Sponsorship began to dry up. The local leagues became less competitive and Zimbabwe pulled out of the Currie Cup. Resources and human capital invested between 1993 and 2000 all went to waste.
A development programme is only useful if it is sustainable and if there is a competitive league for nascent talent to flourish. We ought to realise that developing talent without developing domestic structures in tandem won’t help us in any way.
Today Zimbabwe rugby has plumbed the depths of despair.
It’s a pity Zimbabwe has produced multitudes of talented rugby players but at the moment there is nothing to show for that.
Do we have to wonder why the likes of Adrian Garvey, one of the first Zimbabweans to play in the Currie Cup, were never enthusiastic about representing their country despite their enviable abilities?
Even Maidza, Noble, Victor Olonga and Karl Mudzamba, among many others, have never been really committed to national duty. The same can be said about Mordecai Mwerenga, who was plucked from a rural school and developed at Prince Edward in Harare.
We can only wonder where Zimbabwe would be now on the rugby map if the likes of Kennedy Tsimba, Tafadzwa Manyimo and Anthony Papenfus had been motivated to continue playing. And now South Africa are keen to have sensation Tonderai Chavanga playing for them instead of his fatherland Zimbabwe.
It might be easier to lambast such players for snubbing national duty, but a closer look at how the game is run in the country might easily provide the answer.
We are blessed to have a big number of schools who take rugby seriously. A tournament like the annual Cottco Schools Rugby Festival clearly exhibits what talent Zimbabwe has. The recent Under-19 World Cup where Zimbabwe’s Young Sables did well just goes further to prove our potential as a country.
But after school what will become of all those good and promising players? Is there any guarantee that Michael Passaportis, Munyaradzi Taruvinga, Alex Ndangana, Roland Benade, Tangai Nemadire and Ebenezer Simba will find enough incentive to keep them on the domestic scene or in the game at all?
Your guess is as good as mine.
It’s sad to have potential stars retiring from the sport before even playing at the highest level. It’s also disheartening to have players opting for inferior leagues just because there’s no better home.
Only next month Zimbabwe will be playing a World Cup qualifier against either Zambia or Senegal. We shall not say much, except to wish new Sables coach Chris Lampard the best of luck.