THE name Senegal evokes bad memories for Zimbabwean rugby ahead of the two nations’ showdown in Dakar next week.
Last time the two teams met in 2005, their first and only clash to date, the Senegalese brewed quite a shocker with the most unsportsmanlike and violent conduct you will ever see on an international rugby field.
“They were just trying to intimidate everyone with their size the entire game,” recalls a Zimbabwe player who was among those who suffered the visitors’ shock hostility that afternoon.
“I have never seen poor discipline my entire playing career. They were unbelievably dirty. They were punching and goading us at will. It was not rugby as we know it … it was the old school-type of rugby. I remember (prop Alfred) Sairai coming on in the second half, being punched in the face and immediately going off, his face oozing blood. I just hope they have improved these days in terms of discipline. I’m sure they have.”
Things spiralled out of control in the second half of that World Cup qualifier at Prince Edward in Harare when the West Africans’ big number eight came in with a very dangerous late tackle on Zimbabwe’s outstanding fly-half David Cloete, who was making his Test debut.
The nasty challenge on man-of-the-match Cloete — who won the game for Zimbabwe from the kicking tee with all the Sables’ 21 points — drew a missile from the stands, it must have been a water bottle, that only gave the Senegalese eighthman a gentle stroke on the side of the head.
It provoked an angry reaction from the player, who grabbed an advertising board, in a fit of rage, and threw it into the crowd.
Instead of restraining their teammate, and seeing that the game had been lost anyway and probably trying to incite crowd trouble, the rest of the Senegalese team joined in the ensuing skirmish.
Like men possessed, they went on a mad rampage, attacking the vociferous Zimbabwe fans on a corner of Prince Edward’s Jubilee field, from where the missile had come.
With everyone watching in disbelief, the players launched into the stands to even further confront the fans, who accepted the challenge, leading to a huge brawl in the stands.
The referee somehow managed to cool tempers and the match was played to the end.
And then what would have been the second ever meeting between the two sides was called off in 2008 after the Senegalese said they feared for their safety in Zimbabwe, which was preparing for a general election whose run-off became a bloody affair that year.
Prior to the 2005 game, Zimbabwe’s only other West African opposition had been Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal’s fellow regional powerhouse.
The first meeting between Zimbabwe and The Elephants was back in 1990, in the Ivorians’ very first international rugby game, with the Sables coasting to an easy win.
Rugby in Cote d’Ivoire then seemed to come of age when the national side, thanks to a heavy French influence, pipped continental giants Namibia and Zimbabwe to qualify for the 1995 World Cup.
But Ivorian rugby failed to build on that historic success. The game took a nosedive in the country and was put in mothballs, only returning to the international stage three years later.
The third meeting between the Sables and Cote d’Ivoire would come in Morocco in 1998 in a qualification tournament for the 1999 World Cup. Zimbabwe cruised to a 33-0 victory, but it was Namibia, the fourth side in the competition, who qualified for the World Cup.
Abidjan was the venue of the fourth and last encounter between the two sides in 2005. The Sables flew out to West Africa two months after that Senegal episode and were dealt a heavy blow by the Ivorians, who beat them 33-3 to wreck Zimbabwe’s 2007 World Cup dreams.
So with Zimbabwe and Cote d’Ivoire tied two-all on head-to-head, the Sables visit the Ivorians’ neighbours Senegal next week for the 2017 Gold Cup (formerly Africa Cup) opener in Dakar.
The Gold Cup also serves as part of 2019 World Cup qualifiers.
It is a tricky tie for an inexperienced and rebuilding Sables side, unknown territory for Cyprian Mandenge’s men.
Like Cote d’Ivoire, almost the entire Senegal squad play in leagues across France. The French connection is the lifeline of the game there. Their French coach, Jean-Marc Foucras, will look to win the physical battle against the smaller visitors from Southern Africa.
A lot of movement, therefore, will be required from Zimbabwe to counteract the Lions’ physicality.
They must do well at rucks, release the ball as quickly as possible on the set pieces, mainly in scrum, and give the opposition little time to reorganise in defence.
The form of the halfback pairing of Hilton Mudariki and Tich Makwanya, outstanding in the 64-3 demolition of Zambia in a friendly two weeks ago, will give Zimbabwe lots of hope in Dakar.
A scrumhalf of Mudariki’s quality is a great asset to any team. His good decision-making ability and tactical kicking only bear full fruit, though, with a back-three that is comfortable on the ball—under it or chasing it.
Fly-half Makwanya’s experience was abundantly evident against the Zambians, complementing Mudariki exceptionally well by driving the opposition backwards whole night. He should get the nod in Dakar ahead of Lenience Tambwera.
Everything, though, will depend on fair play in Dakar.
The Zimbabwe incident from 2005 was not the only time Senegal has been involved in an ill-tempered game of rugby.
When the West African side won Africa’s second-tier competition last year, the final against Tunisia was another muddy affair, forcing the continental governing body into issuing a warning: “What should have been a beautiful final was spoiled by many fights which Rugby Africa regrets and condemns severely. The continental body wishes to promote rugby as a unique sport thanks to its spirit of loyalty and values. The disciplinary officers will sanction the players responsible for this adequately and in accordance with the regulation 17 of World Cup.”