SO much is said about the Prince Edward Tigers team that took Zimbabwean schoolboy rugby to lofty levels at the turn of the millennium.
Springboks winger Tonderai Chavhanga, regarded as the fastest man in world rugby three years ago before an injury setback, is the symbol of that great Tigers generation which mesmerised the schools scene in 1999 and 2 000.
While speedster Chavhanga â€” then known as Kawaza â€” was obviously the star of that team, he had a peer in dazzling fylhalf Piet Benade.
“I always knew he had the talent to go all the way,” Benade says of Chavhanga. “He worked hard, believed in himself and was a classy player.”
The trailblazing PE side also contained such highly promising players as Vakai Hove, Gordon Pangeti, Forbes Foberts, Howard Hawadi and Lance Eeson.
On leaving school, most of the side made the great trek to South Africa. Chavhanga became an instant hit at Western Province. Sterling performances for Provinceâ€™s Super 14 franchise, Stormers, saw him getting a Bok call-up, scoring six tries on his debut against Uruguay in 2005.
As for the 26-year-old France-based Benade, he went to Stellenbosch University on leaving PE and played first team rugby there before
joining WP and later Mpumalanga Pumas, where he finished on the Currie Cup top ten try-scorer chat in 2006.
Despite carrying an injury, Benade travelled with the Zimbabwe Cheetahs to last weekendâ€™s Lusaka Castle Lager Sevens in Zambia, where IndependentSport spoke with him.
Time does nothing to dull Benadeâ€™s chronicle of his school playing days, and the nostalgia was made even sweeter by a Zimbabwe tournament win in the Lusaka tournament, flowing drinks courtesy of the sponsor, and a reunion with former PE teammate, Leonard Mapuranga, who now resides in Zambia.
“It was a wonderful team,” says Benade. “Results spoke for themselves. We were unbeaten for two years. We beat top schools in South Africa; Paarl Boys High, Michael House, and had good games against Kingswood and Rersny College.”
Benade owes much of his success to legendary coach Ian Robertson, the Rhodesia-born Springbok player.
“He got the team to where it was,” he says. “He took PE rugby to unprecedented levels, equal to the top South African schools.”
Sports flows in the Benade blood, cousins Tom and Roland Benade have also played rugby for Zimbabwe. Tom and Rolandâ€™s brother, Dirk, is a professional golfer.
“My cousins are very sporty, and my father, who was a rugby player, has been my biggest supporter, especially the decision to send me to PE when a lot of white guys were no longer going there,” he says. “It exposed me to top quality coaching. We come from Chegutu and I went to Bryden for junior school, so I could have gone to one of the districts high schools. Attending PE made a huge difference. It exposed me to the best coaches in the country. John Falkenberg took us at under 15 and had us for Under 16, and then Ian took over at first team. They were outstanding coaches. The team was a talented bunch, but the coaching made it better.”
After undergoing operation on his groin in 2007, Benade ended his seven-year spell in South Africa to become the first Zimbabwean to play professionally in the financially-rewarding French club scene.
He joined Pro D2 side, USA Limoges, playing against renowned international stars such as Springbok lock Victor Matfield, former Wallaby skipper George Gregan and rugby unionâ€™s most-capped international, New Zealander Andrew Mehrtens.
“Itâ€™s a fantastic league, the team that won promotion into Pro D1 for next season, Toulon, wants to buy (New Zealand flyhalf) Dan Carter,” he says.
Toulon are coached by former All Blacks legend, Tana Umaga, a New Zealand rugby folk hero.
Benade says of his first season, and life in the French commune: “It was very nice; very different. Language was a problem, but I learnt a lot. I benefited from different coaching philosophy, and played against top-quality players, guys who have made it in the rugby world. The money is also very good, that is the reason the country is attracting all the big stars.”
He has been offered an extended contract for next season, which starts mid-August. In the meantime, he is back home in Harare, having already put a match-winning performance for Districts Dragons in a league match against reigning domestic champions, Harare Sports Club.
“Iâ€™m enjoying playing in Zim,” he says. “At the end of the day Iâ€™m a Zimbabwean and I am trying to stay in touch with Zimbabwe.”
Once fit, he says he will be available for Zimbabwe in the 2011 World Cup qualifying campaign.
He first played for Zimbabwe at Sevens early last year, and won his Sables debut against Zambia in an international friendly later in the year.