TWO years of groundwork come to a stern test for the Zimbabwe rugby team when they run onto the field in Windhoek tomorrow for the opening match of the combined 2011 World Cup qualifiers/Africa Cup campaign against old foes Namibia.
The Zimbabwe Rugby Unionâ€™s five-year plan has 2011 World Cup qualification as the foremost goal, but defeat in Windhoek will deal the dream a severe blow and send the country back to the drawing board for yet another year.
A loss would be demoralising for a team that has transformed the national game under the most impractical environment to play sports.
The pride in the Sables jersey has been restored, and players have been sharpened by participation at the highest level of the Sevens game.
If justice were done, the Sables deserve to win. They play better rugby which is more attack-oriented and entertaining.
But the Namibians who were at the 2007 World Cup in France, know how to win matches of this magnitude using their power-play approach to maximum effect especially in continental games. Namibiaâ€™s battling 13-10 win away to Senegal in their first match gives Zimbabwe a glimmer of hope. The 22-men Sables flew out to Windhoek via Johannesburg yesterday.
It is a squad that had coach Brendan Dawson generally content but there was a setback over the unavailability of South Africa-based backs Tangai Nemadire and Willis Magasa, who did not even join camp on Monday. Winger/fullback Nemadire pulled a hamstring in a league match in Cape Town at the weekend while centre Magasa had a shoulder injury in Musina.
In-form Harare Sports Club fullback Tafadzwa Mhende suffered a concussion during his sideâ€™s 30-29 loss to Districts on Saturday.
The “speed merchant”, who showcased a quality display of rugby in Zambia in May was the number one reserve utility back for Namibia.
The Sables technical team had called Zimbabwe Under 19s fullback Raymond De Jong as replacement, but he also limped out of training on Tuesday. De Jongâ€™s Young Sables coach, Brighton Chivandire, a former senior national coach himself, helped with training this week.
And following De Jongâ€™s injury, Sevens talismanic winger Wes Mbanje made the touring party as late replacement after initially telling team management that he would not be at his best in Windhoek as he was still trying to regain full fitness.
South Africa-based winger Gerald Sibanda makes his comeback to boost the line. The Falcons player starts ahead of in-form Sevens international Manasah Sita. Alex Ndangana will rove the other wing.
Five scrumhalves were in camp this week, and the coaching department settled for Harare Sports Club captain Donald Mangenje because of his quicker attributes in clearing the ball. He dislodged veterans Gary Hewitt and Tich Chidongo. Limpopo-based Ketumetsi Tlou is the replacement scrumhalf.
18-year-old Danny Robertson has become the first choice flyhalf for the Sables, and will have former forward Gardner Nechironga at outside centre, Paul Staak inside him.
Coach Brendan Dawson expressed satisfaction with his backline.
“We have a lot of sevens guys in the backline,” Dawson said. “The sevens guys play at the highest level and will bring in mental strength, speed and good handling. We would have loved to have the other guys who got injured. We picked the best players available to us.”
In the probable line-up released on Wednesday, regular lock Fortune Chipendo was named as a flanker to accommodate fellow UK-based tight forward Arthur Mate, who partners Dustin Wilcox in a giant-twinning second row.
Germany-based former captain Costa Dinha was named on the bench.
Said Dawson of his forwards pack: “It adds a lot of size to us. It gives us a lot of stability in the scrum, line-outs and at the back of the ruck. Itâ€™s the first time we have had a big pack, so it will be great.”
Sables probable line-up
15. Cleopas Makotose (capt), 14. Alex Ndangana 13. Gardner Nechironga 12. Paul Staak 11. Gerald Sibanda 10. Danny Robertson 9. Donald Mangenje 8. Norman Mukondiwa 7. Jacques Leitao 6. Fortune Chipendo 5. Arthur Mate 4. Dustin Wilcox 3. Rocky Gurumani 2. Raymond Dzvairo 1. Piet Joubert
Reserves: 16. Danford Mutamangira 17. Devon Esbach 18. Prayer Chitenderu 19. Costa Dinha 20. Ketumetsi Tlou 21. Manasah Sita 22. Wes Mbanje.