RUGBY might be among the three major sporting disciplines in Zimbabwe, but rarely does the whole nation rally behind it.
When it does, it is usually the conventional fifteen-aside version that gets the spotlight.
But the Zimbabwe Sevens rugby team has become the nationâ€™s remaining hope on the international stage in the aftermath of failure by the XVs national side to progress to the next stage of IRB World Cup qualifiers â€” unfairly eliminated as they were â€” and the national soccer teamâ€™s disappointing failure to qualify for both the 2010 Fifa World Cup finals and African Nations Cup.
That is the burden that the Sevens rugby team â€” known as the Cheetahs â€” carry as they begin their quest to qualify for the Sevens World Cup in an Africa Zone qualifying tournament beginning today in Tunis. The Sevens World Cup will be played in Dubai in March next year.
As one of the continentâ€™s top teams, the Cheetahs are expected to be among the three qualifiers, alongside Sevens rivals Kenya and hosts Tunisia.
Zimbabwe have over a period of four years drilled an internationally-recognised side under the guidance of youthful coach Liam Middleton, a Zimbabwean employed as a high-performance manager by the Rugby Football Union in the UK.
They have quality players who can walk into any of the international sides, such as defence pillar Daniel Hondo, regarded as one of the best College players in Britain for four years. Such players as the pacey winger Wes Mbanje and tall prop Fortune Chipendo are seasoned Sevens campaigners despite their relative young ages.
The Zimbabwe technical team even had the reassurance of dropping two of their most consistent players this season for the Tunisia test, hooker Manasah Sita and winger Alex Ndangana.
Team manager Bruce Hobson explained Sitaâ€™s omission as a tactical move.
â€œI feel for the guy, heâ€™s such a good player,â€ he said. â€œBut if that is a casualty it shows the depth in our side.â€
He explained that with captain Jacques Leitao being the first choice hooker, Sita would have been competing for the reserve hooker position with Slater Ndlovu and Grant Mitchell, who are specialist forwards. Sita is generally a back line player, but versatile backs Cleopas Makotose and Gerald Sibanda were preferred.
On Ndangana, whose place was taken by England-based newcomer Ryan Manyika, Hobson said: â€œAlex is only a winger and Ryan is coming as backup to the scrumhalf (Tangai Nemadire) and playmaker (Willis Magasa). He is giving us a lot more options.â€
Meanwhile, the qualifiers have been hit by withdrawals with the original draw having to be adjusted. Zimbabwe are in Pool C with improving Botswana and dark horses Madagascar. They play both their preliminary matches today with all knockout matches and the final set for tomorrow.Â Â Â
By Enock Muchinjo