THE Zimbabwe rugby team which was in Zambia last weekend for an international friendly test match, discovered first-hand how their countryâ€™s standing has been severely battered even in regional countries that used to envy their crisis-ridden homeland few years back.
The Sables, accompanied by the national Under 21 and national womenâ€™s sevens sides, played their respective matches in Kitwe, two hours by road from their hotel in Ndola.
Ndola and Kitwe are towns on the Zambian Copperbelt, the industrial hub of the country. Zambia is currently enjoying an economic recovery unprecedented in the countryâ€™s history, and the mineral-rich Copperbelt symbolises that prosperity.
Itâ€™s almost as if the hugely popular Toyota
Corolla is the cheapest car one is allowed to
use on the Copperbeltâ€™s streets, while residentsâ€™ disposable income power is abundantly evident in the shopping malls and on the busy social scenes.
Everywhere you go, ordinary Zambians showed an informed understanding of the crisis obtaining in Zimbabwe.
A report in the Daily Post said Zimbabweans escaping xenophobic violence in South Africa but avoiding their own country, were being made to pay 2 000 Kwacha per night to sleep in parked haulage vehicles.
“Wonâ€™t Mugabe withhold the results of the run-off if he loses again? So who are you going to vote forâ€¦?”.
One question followed another.
“Mugabe what? What has your president done this time?!”, an official of the Zambia women team reacted to the Saturday Postâ€™s screaming lead story headline, “Mugabeâ€™s wife joins campaign”, in which Grace Mugabe, a picture of her clenching her fist “gracing” the front page, vowed that her husband would not vacate State House if he lost to Morgan Tsvangirai in the run-off poll.
The Diggers rugby ground, where it is said Zambia rarely lose, is surrounded by mines, which are at the centre of rugby development in that region. A sizeable and jovial crowd came from different parts of the Copperbelt to witness what they anticipated to be certain victory.
Foreign nationals working on the mines, including Zimbabweans, were part of the throng.
Rugby matches between Zimbabwe and Zambia have become highly competitive that even the friendlies are fiercely contested.
This is mainly because while Zimbabwean rugby, once second only to South Africa on the continent in strength and history, has been on the decline due to the economic meltdown. On the other hand Zambia, an emerging rugby nation, has been witnessing an upsurge in game awareness and sponsorship.
“Zimbabweans are hungry, they canâ€™t beat us,” one fan shouted for all to hear.
The earlier losses in the day by the Zimbabwe Under 21s and Zimbabwe sevens women to the Zambians left them with no doubt of the fate awaiting the Sables in the main match.
“I thought Zimbabweans were starving, look at how fit these guys are,” said an event staff member on seeing the impressive physique of the Zimbabwean players as they walked past the main grand stand for the pre-match ceremony.
Quite rightly so, the Zimbabwe forwards Rocky Gurumani, Raymond Dzvairo, Dustin Wilcox, Fortune Chipendo and basically the whole Sables pack was way heavier and fitter than Zambiaâ€™s.
“I thought Mugabe chased away all the whites, where did these guys come from?” a drunken spectator wondered aloud in the local Nyanja as the inter-racial Sables outfit filed past.
When the match finally started at 1635, the Sables were soon showing their mettle.
They scored the first try after some tight forwards exchanges which saw young winger Manasah Sita tucking in the corner.
Despite scoring and converting moments later, Zambia trailed 17-7 at the break after tries by Zimbabweâ€™s stand-in skipper, eighthman Norman Mukondiwa, and replacement flanker Prayer Chitenderu.
Zambia tried to fight back with some strong backline running, but that again was soon immobilised by the Sablesâ€™ drift defence play, impregnable the whole afternoon.
To add to their pack superiority, the Sablesâ€™ three-quarters lurked dangerously once the big men did their job, and they could so easily have buried the Zambians had they fully utilised the quick ball from tight phases and from the breakdowns.
The diminutive winger Sita was dangerous all afternoon, crossing the try line twice, while 18-year-old debutant flyhalf Danny Roberston read the game well and called the moves with the slickness and vision of a veteran.
Zimbabweâ€™s flat defence line was even more water-tight in the second half, throwing themselves in the tackles like their whole careers depended on it, maintaining the 17-7 lead for most of the half.
With all Zambian attack options closed down, and the defense beaten into submission, Sita and replacement centre Willis Magasa rounded off with converted tries to wrap up a 31-7 win.
The celebrations continued to the post-match dinner at a nearby sports club, where Zambian officials hipped praises on the Zimbabwean rugby system.
Despite the problems at home, a group of rugby players had come with a positive attitude and done well for themselves and their sport.
People involved in Zimbabwe rugby have defied the economic situation in reviving a sport that was once on its deathbed. The countryâ€™s sevens team has already built a good profile as a world-class team.
That notwithstanding, and when reality dawns after celebrating sporting success, one gets a deep sense of sadness about the terrible image bestowed upon the country by its rulers.
Zimbabwe desperately needs to become a normal country again and restore its standing among other nations.
Unfortunately victories on the sports arena can only restore just a smidgen of national pride. With the reality of political violence, poverty and world-record inflation on the grounds it takes much more than a game of rugby to repair the damage.