CLEOPAS Makotose was barely 23 years old when he led his troops onto the park against Madagascar in 2006.
He would become the youngest man to captain his country in rugby, a great honour and source of enormous pride for a player who had been capped just three times prior to being asked to lead the side.
New Zimbabwe rugby coach Chris Lampard had seen leadership qualities, burning passion and dogged fighting spirit in the young backliner and quickly made him the country’s newest rugby skipper.
That game at Hartsfield in Bulawayo was drawn 22-22, with Makotose outstanding at fullback — although he would go on to excel at centre for the rest of his international career. “I was privileged to captain the team at a very young age, but it wasn’t an easy thing for me,” says Makotose.
“But there were senior players who were much older than me; Prayer Chitenderu, Costa Dinha — they were much older but they were with me throughout and helped me grow as a player and captain.”
Makotose, clearly due to his boundless passion and genuine concern for the wellbeing of rugby in Zimbabwe, has been in the wars since his rookie years, a battle-weary warrior, he appears now, who can look back to his playing days with some kind of satisfaction — and equal amount of regrets. He made his Sables debut as a 20-year-old during a dark period of Zimbabwean rugby when pretty much everything else in the country had gone haywire. The debut was in defeat away to Uganda in 2003. Zimbabwean rugby was in disarray at the time. The fiery Victor Olonga, older brother of the history-making black Zimbabwe cricketer Henry, was the captain.
Former Zimbabwe international Naboth “Bad News” Mujaji was the coach.
Mujaji had been appointed following a crisis meeting in Harare. Before the Uganda trip, Victor had successfully led a player rebellion against the appointment of new coach Alex Nicholls, a white Zimbabwean, accusing him of being racist.
So, young players like Makotose, who idolised the iconic Victor Olonga, were indoctrinated into the politics of the sport early on, and while they may not necessarily have shared some of Olonga’s most radical views — they leant to be fiercely independent, to have pride in their sport and country, demand standards as well as fight for what they believed to be a noble cause.
“He was a very good captain who led by example and strongly believed in his principles about how things should be done,” says Makotose of Olonga.
“He was a fantastic rugby player. He always put the players first. Though he was a hard man, he had respect for the game and young players like myself then didn’t find it hard to grow under his watch.”
These traits were evident in Makotose throughout his playing days, a trophy-ladden career in which he won two Africa Cup titles and a Victoria Cup with the Sables.
Makotose was raised on a healthy diet of sport alongside his late brother Modreck, who also played rugby and turned to administration after sustaining leg injuries in a car crash. The two boys were educated at the prestigious Murray McDougal primary school in the Lowveld, where sport was in every way part of the school’s culture.
Their father had been a top executive for a sugar-manufacturing company, so for senior school the boys were sent to another leading institution, Plumtree School in Matabeleland, another sport-mad institution.
This is where Makotose’s love affair with the city of Bulawayo began. To this day, he has sentimental attachment to both the city and province. This is where he spent six memorable years and honed his sporting skills. This is where he would captain his country for the first time 11 years ago.
And now, this is where he is earning a living, as head coach of Bulawayo school Petra High. Makotose has turned to coaching after his playing career ended. First, he was made coach of Zimbabwe’s women sevens side, then worked as a specialist coach at Gateway High School in Harare.
Now he is the head coach at Petra, a job he says allows him, as the man in overall charge, to refine his coaching skills and directing operations of the entire team as opposed to being a specialist.
“Look, I’ve had a short coaching career, but I’m blessed to have worked with the likes of Marvin Chirume and Tunga Mashungu, the Gateway headmaster. There was a system we used. When I moved to Petra as the head coach, I applied what I leant at Gateway. Being the head coach you have the luxury of having certain coaches do certain things. I don’t have to worry about coaching the forwards. My biggest worry is to have the perfect forwards coach in place.”
More appointments are lining up for Makotose. He has recently been appointed assistant coach for the Zimbabwe Schools team that takes part in South Africa’s Craven Week every year. He will deputise the Zimbabwean-born former Scotland international Scott Gray, who coaches at St John’s College in Harare. Makotose’s style of coaching is in every respect similar to how he played the game himself.
“I like exciting, running rugby, keeping the ball moving, quick breakdowns,” he says. “That’s my style of rugby I suppose.”
Petra is not traditionally a top rugby school. It is due in part to the fact that since it is a mixed-sex school, they have always had a smaller pool of boys to pick from, as opposed to the all-boys schools who have the entire school to select from. But making Petra compete with the big schools is work in progress. “It’s something we are working on. It’s a big challenge. Petra is a co-school and a hockey school. But we are working on making rugby a big sport there too.”
It helps that the boys at the school are extremely committed to the sport, and to enhance their status in that sport.
“In schoolboy rugby it depends on culture. You play to the school’s culture. The boys are committed already so what I look for is discipline.”
Coaching the sevens women was a unique experience for Makotose, totally different to coaching young schoolboys approaching the prime of their physical shape.
“There are differences. It’s never easy coaching women. You have to deal with the external factors. The faster you overcome, the challenges the better you become as a coach.”
He also spent a season playing club rugby in the UK last year although, sadly, injury marred that stint. “When I was there I played for Huddersfield Rugby Club, but I was suffering from knee injury so I was working with the little kids, little under-8s and under-9s. It was fun. That’s when I kind of decided to become a coach and I’ve never really looked back.”
One of the highlights of Makotose’s playing career was being selected into the African Leopards, a select side of the continent’s top players — in 2005.
“I was one of only two Zimbabweans. The first two Zimbabweans. The only two, in fact. It was me and a great friend of mine, Jacques Leitao. We played together from Zim Under-21s. He also went on to captain the Zim Cheetahs (national sevens team). We toured France and played the French Under-21 side and won. It was one of my best moments I suppose.”