ZIMBABWE rugby has for four years used the Sevens format as its development springboard, and it is fitting that the star of their World Cup qualification success in Tunisia last week should be Gardner Nechironga, a â€œlocationâ€ boy.
Rated the best player in the tournament in Tunis, Cheetahs prop Nechironga became popular with charmed locals in the Tunisian capital as â€œThe Magicianâ€ during the two days of the qualifiers.
Tall and slim, one would expect Nechironga to be a physical-shunning player with an equally modest work-rate. Quite the reverse, in fact. He is a fearless young player, courageous and superbly fit for a man of his size. Â
It has to do, perhaps, with his upbringing.
Gardner was born on February 5 1984 in Luveve, Bulawayo, and grew up there.
As a young boy he played soccer with his friends in the streets of the dusty neighbourhood. His uncle, George Nechironga, who he idolised, was the fearsome Caps United striker who jointly won the Soccer Star of the Year award with Peter Ndlovu in 1991.
But the little boy with the lion heart was adventurous that when rugby was introduced as a new sport at Mafikela Primary School in Luveve, and when bigger boys were running away from it, he knew at once that his calling had come.
At Luveve High School rugby wasnâ€™t a major sport, but with one of the senior students being Arthur Mate, the UK-based Zimbabwe lock forward, there was sufficient encouragement for him to further his rugby interest.
â€œThe rugby wasnâ€™t very good in the high-density schools,â€ says Nechironga. â€œBut I loved the sport so much so that I decided to join Highlanders Rugby Club when I was 16.â€
He was good enough to be selected for a star-studded Zimbabwe Under-21 team in 2004 under Bulawayo coach Peter Staak.
Looking back, the Zimbabwe rugby fraternity can be justifiably proud because that Under-21 side now forms the core of the current Zimbabwe national team.
The other prominent players in the side included Zimbabwe Fifteens captain Cleopas Makotose, Zimbabwe Sevens captain Jacques Leitao, Sables centre Paul Staak, the coachâ€™s son, Cheetahs centre Daniel Hondo, Sables and Cheetahs forward Fortune Chipendo, Sables and Cheetahs back Willis Magasa and Sables flyhalf Happy Nyatanga. The captain, Mbekezeli Ndiweni, also won Sables caps. The team also produced a Springbok in the form of tight-head prop Brian Mujati, currently on a maiden tour of Europe with the world champions.
At school, because of his pace and skill, Nechironga played anywhere in the backline save for scrumhalf. But at club level, Western Panthers â€” as Highlanders later changed its name to â€” coach Ziv Dzinomurumbi converted him to lock.
â€œThe coach said he needed height in the forwards to jump in the line-outs. I also played basketball at school so I was a good jumper,â€ he says.
At Panthers he teamed up with older players like Mate, fiery ex-Zimbabwe captain Victor Olonga and Slater Ndlovu, the only other current Zimbabwe Sevens player from Bulawayo.
The high-density outfit came painfully close to winning the national league title in 2004, losing a tightly-contested final to Old Hararians.
â€œI still blame myself for that loss,â€ he says. â€œI wanted to be the hero and towards the end of the match I broke through from the centre. Instead of passing to a better-positioned guy I found myself going for glory, but I was tackled brilliantly, I think by Farai Shava.â€
On the back of his performances, young Gardner was called into national training squads but without being capped. He made his Sables debut on his home turf against Madagascar at Hartsfield in Bulawayo in 2006. Playing lock, he dived over the line to score a try in the 22-22 draw.
When Brendan Dawson replaced Chris Lampard as Sables coach, he moved Nechironga to flanker for the Zambia friendly international in 2007 at Harare Sports Club.
And when he moved to Petersburg Rugby Club in South Africa that year, he reverted back to the backs. He plays wing, centre or fullback. This prompted Dawson to switch him to outside centre for the Zambia friendly test in Kitwe in May and the World Cup qualifier in Namibia in August. He delivered top-notch performances in both matches.
â€œIt was good to play in the midfield for the Sables alongside Paul Staak, who is a very, very good inside centre.â€
Playing amateur rugby in Polokwane, he has to supplement his earnings by working as an assistant teacher at a private school.
He says: â€œThe level of the game is not that bad although itâ€™s not professional and we donâ€™t get to play against teams from the big cities as often as we want. However, Iâ€™m hoping to get a professional contract soon.â€
Having started off at XVs, Nechironga is now a key member of the Sevens side, who he only toured with for the first time last year.
Â â€œI enjoy it better than fifteens now because itâ€™s a running and physical game. Not to say I donâ€™t enjoy fifteens anyone, I still do. I think guys must be encouraged to show commitment to both forms of the game.â€
He plays prop at Sevens because of his versatility, having played both in the pack and line in senior rugby.
Cheetahs boss Bruce Hobson reckons Nechironga to be the find of the season.
â€œHeâ€™s such a nice guy, very humble,â€ he says. â€œHeâ€™s fast enough to play on the wing. Heâ€™s got pace. You look at him and the next thing heâ€™s gone. Like in Tunisia, he was just good…no mistakes.â€
On World Cup qualification, Nechironga says: â€œEvery playerâ€™s dream is to play in a World Cup. There hasnâ€™t been that many World Cup opportunities for Zimbabwe in any sport. Iâ€™m very proud to be part of a team that qualified for the World Cup.â€