Sables in big escape

Enock Muchinjo


A FEW years ago, it was unthinkable to praise a Zimbabwe rugby team for even beating a side from Madagascar. Then a Zimbabwe victory against such opposition would be foregone conclusion.

But under  the circumstances, the Sables’

escape from the jaws of defeat to draw with Madagascar last Saturday was a laudable showing by a young Zimbabwean rugby that ended the match with eight test debutants.

The Sables who were deprived of their foreign-based stars, and missing some locally based players such as injured skipper Max Madziva, mercurial wing Emmanuel exhibited an undying inner strength of Zimbabwean rugby.

On the administrative side, hosts Matabeleland Rugby Football Board put up an impressive show in organisation, further proof for the commitment to rugby in that part of the country. The Hartsfield turf was green and in perfect condition, with the sponsor’s logo painted professionally across the pitch, providing a picturesque view from the grand stand where most fans sat.

On the field of play, what came out without doubt was that Madagascar, like many other African sides, are improving in competitiveness and technical awareness. This is largely because countries with more stable economies than Zimbabwe’s are able to hire professional coaches and expose their players to superior physical conditioning in addition to playing regular international participation.

Madagascar play a lot of sevens rugby in their country, and it showed in their ability to attack the open space and run the ball quickly in the backs.

But on the other hand, the sables showed they have better natural rugby talent.

There was a young side dominated by locally based, raw talent, with the only foreign-based players coming from the semi-professional leagues in South Africa’s Messina province. Most of them had only seen the type of open rugby displayed by Madagascar on television, and that they were not outclassed was an achievement in its own right.

While Zimbabwe’s finest rugby players have left the country, some of the best the county has to offer are still here. Particularly imposing among the locally based players was the bone-crunching loose-head prop, Alfred Sairayi, who led the tight forwards with aplomb.

Forward rugby requires a degree of natural ability and Madagascar struggled in this department while the young Zimbabwean pack drove and shoved the islanders in tight play all afternoon.

It was befitting that a young forward, lock Gardner Nechironga, touched down for the try that earned Zimbabwe a draw.

The loose forwards also deserve special mention. Debutant eighthman Norman Mukondiwa, blind-side flanker Jason Hitz as well as vice-captain and open-side flank Jacques Leitao took advantage of their few set responsibilities to display all-round qualities in speed, strength and brave tackling.

In the backline, the Sables were found wanting due to inexperience. The midfield of Willis Magasa and debutant inside-centre Gerald Sibanda was not able to break through the Madagascar line, and when attack turned to defence, they were not strong in the tackle because of their lesser physical attributes.

However, fullback and stand-in captain Cleopas Makotose, who seemed to be carrying an injury as he was constantly receiving treatment on his harmstring, took the bull by the horns to liven up the Zimbabwe line. His two tries in either half were a combination of attacking skills and open-field running.

Experienced scrumhalf Tich Chidongo linked capably and was at the centre of every action. His halfback partner, new flyhalf Paul Staak, generally showed great creativity and deceptive running.

On the wings, Tangai Nemadire was subdued and was one of the reasons the line was not lively.  But on the right wing, spurred by the hometown crowd, diminutive Lloyd Makwati exhibited great pace and nimble sidesteps which prised open the opposition defense.