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Middleton tracks the greats

Enock Muchinjo

FOR a small rugby nation, Zimbabwe has produced a number of world-class coaches.

The old guard remembers nostalgically the

popular Zimbabwean-born Springboks coach Ian McIntosh as well as Ian Robertson, the former Zimbabwean fifteens international and fitness expert.

Liam Middleton, the Zimbabwe sevens coach, might be following in the footsteps of these former greats.

The highlight of Middleton’s career so far has been his appointment as coach of both the British Universities fifteens and sevens teams inside three years. Still just 28, the England-based trainer is enjoying his work and bigger jobs could be on the way.

Middleton took charge of the British Universities fifteens side for a tour of New Zealand in 2004, winning all four matches on the tour. This year he will tour Italy with the sevens side for the World Universities Championships.

Last year, Middleton won his first silverware as a coach when he led Zimbabwe’s Zambezi Cheetahs to victory in the plate division of the Benidorm Sevens in Spain.

Since he took over the Cheetahs in 2003, Zimbabwe has finished in the top four in all the competitions they have played outside the two IRB Sevens.

Last weekend the Cheetahs lost to South Africa’s Mpumalanga in the final of the Mosi Sevens in Zambia.

“It was disappointing to lose because we had beaten Mpumalanga convincingly on Saturday and people said we were the best team in the tournament,” Middleton said. “It was our best performance since George (in the IRB Sevens) last year.”

Middleton said of his team’s performances so far this season: “We try to give the players a framework for attack and defence. But in that framework individual ability has to come out.

“The players’ skill level is improving all the time. There is better teamwork and confidence. Confidence is a key factor. A confident player is a dangerous player. We are trying to give the players confidence and pride in playing for Zimbabwe.”

Born in Harare and schooled at Watershed College, Middleton had set his sights on playing fifteens rugby at the top level until a shattering knee injury cut short his career in 1999.

He sustained the injury playing for the Gloucester Under 21s in England, a side he joined after leaving Natal University in South Africa in 1998.

Middleton is employed as the high-performance manager at the Hartpury College Academy in Gloucester, and coaches both the fifteens and sevens side at the college. His fellow countryman, Daniel Hondo, is on a scholarship at the college and is a key member of the national side.

“Danny has had a good season this year,” he said. “He is much faster and stronger. His skills are better. He has a cool head as well. He has played well in the fifteens and has been one of our best backline players.”

Middleton hopes his Zimbabwe side will do well in the Tusker Sevens in Kenya this weekend. A good showing in Nairobi, Middleton said, would see his side knocking hard on the doors of IRB for invitation into the rugby world governing body’s international tournaments.

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