Zim Sevens Are World Class –- Middleton

THE Zimbabwe Sevens rugby training squad will assemble in Harare from Monday ahead of the IRB Sevens World Cup qualifying tournament in Tunisia at the end of this month.

IndependentSport’s Enock Muchinjo (EM) linked up with the team’s UK-based coach Liam Middleton (LM) before his flight home for the camp. Here are excerpts of the interview.

EM: Three teams will qualify for the IRB Sevens World Cup. Which ones do you think will qualify?
LM: I think there will be four major teams in the running for the three spots- Zimbabwe, Kenya, Tunisia and Namibia. However you cannot count out the possibility of an upset from Uganda, Madagascar or Morocco. Madagascar are dark horses, very physical and athletic with good skills, you cannot underestimate them. However going on recent form, I would say the four teams mentioned are the most likely contenders for the three positions.
EM: How do you think Zimbabwe will generally fare in Tunisia? Kenya beat Zimbabwe at the Tusker this year, do you hope to avenge that defeat if you meet them in Tunisia?
LM: I can’t say how we will do in terms of actual results, but what I can say is that what we are focusing on is our preparations and that’s all we can do for now because we have no control over how the opposition is preparing. They will be training as hard as we are, so until the tournament starts I will be focusing entirely on squeezing every ounce of potential from my players. There is immense competition between Zimbabwe, Kenya and Tunisia. Recently we have been three teams of relative parity. We beat Kenya last year in the Tusker tournament by one score, they beat us this year by one score and our record is similar with Tunisia. We are three very competitive teams, so I will be aiming to be fully prepared to beat them, that’s all we can do.
EM: A few weeks ago you mentioned in a blog that you will take to Tunisia your strongest ever team in four years. In what particular areas has the team improved? What are the team’s strongest points?
LM: The key is having talented players, and I think our pool of talented players has increased. We are stronger now in all aspects of the game; skills, tactical appreciation, mental strength, and physical conditioning has been an area that has required big improvements and we are seeing that. However I don’t feel we are complete in that area yet. It’s difficult to nail down our strong points; I think we are a well-rounded team. Our defence has been an area of the game that I’ve put a lot of emphasis on and I think when we get that right we have a technically world-class system, but it’s still work-in-progress.
EM: You have seen players come and go, such as Emmanuel Munyoro from your first squad, and of late Tendai Takavarasha. Do you feel there are players outside the current squad who should be in it?
LM: I believe that I can assess a player’s current ability and future potential quite quickly; some players have been in our system and have dropped out either because they did not have the physical attributes, skill base and most importantly the mental attribute of commitment and determination. The players that are currently in our system are determined players, if they weren’t, they wouldn’t last. I can’t say that there is anyone that is currently available to us that isn’t in the squad. However I have had my eye on Pieter Benade (based in France) and Garth Ziegler (based in Italy). Piet is not available to us and I’m awaiting a decision on Garth. Although these two players would add greatly to our talent pool, they haven’t made themselves available. I feel now that Zim Sevens is becoming an established International Sevens team, because of the recognition that we have received for the results that we have achieved. Because of this I often feel that the best players for Zim Sevens are the ones who make themselves available because those are usually the guys you can rely on in the heat and pressure of top-class Sevens.
EM: How does Zim measure up to the top teams in Africa as a team and as individual players? What of in the world?
LM: We are a top team in Africa! The only African team that we haven’t beaten in the last 12 months is South Africa. I believe we have some players that would make an Africa-All-Stars Sevens (if there was one you could do one as a fantasy team Enock!!) What about with the top teams in the world? We have fared well in all of our IRB World Series tournaments, we have made a bowl or shield final in all of the IRB World Series tournaments that we have played in since I’ve been coaching the team (except our first tournament, George 2005). That’s five in a row and it’s an exceptionally consistent result. We will always have a tough time against the very top teams like New Zealand and Fiji but we have had some close game against other Tier One teams.
EM: Apart from Slater Ndlovu and Grant Mitchell, the rest of the squad is aged 26 and below. Don’t you think you need to add a little more experience in the form of Allan Mdehwa and Neill Nortje?
LM: Not at all, it’s not about age, it’s about picking the best 12 players and those 12 will come from our squad of 16 and within those 12 players I believe we will have a good level of experience. Experience is more important than age. Danny Hondo and Slater Ndlovu both played in the last World Cup qualifiers four years ago. Fortune Chipendo and Wes Mbanje had played for Zim Sevens before the last World Cup qualifiers so we have a fair bit of experience.
EM: How did youngsters like Garth Ziegler and Ryan Manyika make it into the training squad at the expense of guys like Tafadzwa Mhende and Happy Nyatanga who have been part of the Cheetahs before and are still playing well at both sevens and XVs? Do they have special attributes?
LM: Taffy Mhende will be a part of the group of 16. It’s not about what you have done in XVs or how long you have been in and around Sevens in Zim, at international level. It’s about picking the best 12 players. I think some players don’t realise what it takes to be a Zim Sevens player, it’s a lot more than pitching up for training once in while. It takes a lot of hard work and sacrifice. If you are not up to the standard at international level, there is no hiding it, you will be seen and exploited. So the criteria must always be about selecting the best players and I think you will see the difference in ability that Garth and Ryan have.
EM: How can Zim’s success at Sevens transform into XVs success? Is the professional approach at Sevens applicable to the Zim Sables?
LM: I think the success at Zim Sevens has already been seen in XVs because it’s clear that the Sevens players are very well-conditioned, well-skilled and have had the benefit of international competition and they will obviously contribute that in XVs. But you can’t expect a direct transfer of results because the game of Sevens and XVs are different. I think the work that Brendan Dawson (Zim XVs coach) and Losson Mtongwiza (manager) do is very good and will in time bear fruit.
EM: What about the worst possible scenario, failing to qualify for the World Cup, that will obviously be a massive blow?
LM: I haven’t considered it and don’t think I will. That doesn’t mean I’m complacent.  I am very aware of the challenge that is in front of us and I’m just going to continue to manage our preparation to get the best possible result in Tunisia.
EM: What do you have to say about your future with the team? Are you going to stay on?
LM: My commitment is with the team and I’m not considering anything else at the moment. I still feel there is a lot to do with Zim Sevens and my vision is not complete yet. There is always a group of individuals who lurk in the shadows hoping for a piece of the action, but like all successful teams and organizations, you have the right people in place and I think Zim Sevens’ resurgence has been down to having the right people involved at many levels. My role with Zim Sevens is always at the discretion of the chairman of Zimbabwe Sevens and the ZRU. Right now my focus is with preparations for the World Cup Qualifiers and nothing can detract us from that.