WHAT really happened on that fateful day in Madagascar three years ago?
By Enock Muchinjo
It is painful reminder of an experience better forgotten in the Zimbabwean rugby community. But the effects of that heartbreak continue to prove too far-reaching to ignore. The more they return to haunt us every year, the harder it becomes to forget the events of that unpleasant afternoon in the Indian Ocean island.
Falling short by a mere try to qualify for your first World Cup in over two decades is hurtful. Even more when it is a horribly bad on-field decision, human error you may call it, that has denied you the last-gasp try right at the death. That is what transpired in July 2014 in Antananarivo, capital city of rugby-crazy Madagascar, in front of a near sell-out crowd of 20 000 at the Mahamasina Stadium. For four solid years the Zimbabwe Rugby Union (ZRU) had marvellously put in the long hours of hard work and instilled in each and every one of us the World Cup dream of England 2015.
Zimbabwean rugby had reclaimed its lofty position in Africa and the dream was well and truly alive. A well-drilled Sables side dripping quality led Kenya 25-10 late into the second half of the two sides’ final qualification tournament match in Antananarivo, and England was calling.
Victory was in sight, but there was the small matter of a fourth all-important try required to seal automatic qualification for Zimbabwe regardless of the score later in the afternoon at Mahamasina between giants Namibia and struggling hosts Madagascar.
The rugby gods were smiling down at Zimbabwean rugby again and yippee, there it was, glorious opportunity for the World Cup-sealing try — penalty on the 22-metre line and the referee’s time fast ticking away. Surely, at this stage now, the message must be passed on to the players that a try will send them to the World Cup.
Surely, in search of the most important try in Zimbabwean rugby history, the Sables — with their technically superior pack of forwards — should kick into the corner for touch and try force a try from the resultant line-out. Perhaps even tap and go. Or go the scrum route. But no! Guy Cronje, Zimbabwe’s in-form kicker and outstanding flyhalf, kicked for goal instead and got the three points comfortably. The game finished 28-10 in favour of Zimbabwe, who didn’t get the bonus point they needed.
Namibia, who had probably given up to being finally knocked off their perch by their great rivals Zimbabwe, said thank you and accepted the gift. They hammered Madagascar soon afterwards, piling on the 70-plus points they needed, and they were the ones going to the World Cup again from Africa. Tears ran down players’ cheeks at the team’s hotel as Zimbabwe’s squad was left to reflect on a moment that nearly changed rugby in their country.
The blame game also went into overdrive as the nation tried to come to terms with one of its greatest sporting heartbreaks in history.
Captain Daniel Hondo was particularly singled out for persecution for the costly decision to kick for goal. Also in the line of fire was, of all people, not the coach, but the highly-rated director of rugby for the country, Liam Middleton, who had made himself the team’s technical advisor for the qualifiers. It is said the decision to go for the three points instead of the five-pointer had been made for Hondo by Middleton, who sat on the team’s bench during the tournament. In the wake of the Antananarivo tragedy, Zimbabwean rugby, which had hauled itself from a hole it had sunk for many years, is wobbling again — struggling to shake off the disappointment of that great misfortune.
Last weekend in Bulawayo, with a year before the 2019 World Cup qualifiers, Zimbabwe suffered a second successive Africa Cup home defeat to Kenya in as many years.
Former international Brighton Chivandire, who was Zimbabwe’s team manager in the 2014 qualifiers, knows how the deep scars of Madagascar are still eating into the fresh of everyone with interest in Zimrugby. “To get the boys to regroup has been a challenge after that blow,” says Chivandire, who is also a former national coach. “Failing to qualify the last time out was a huge dent in terms of our objective as the players and the union.”
Chivandire has, however, refused to join the finger-pointing bandwagon.
“Critics have the advantage of hindsight,” he says. “We kicked for goal and took the three points. As a group we must take responsibility for that decision. We won the game at least. It wasn’t our birthright to win it. What if we had kicked for touch and didn’t win the line-out? Yes, it had worked before during the game. But under pressure, isn’t it possible that it may not have worked?
“I do accept the possibility that it would have been a very good decision. Our maul was working, and at that time their (Kenya) brilliant number 6 was off the park on a yellow card. I heard people saying why you didn’t try it. It’s a fair opinion. But the other way is also fair. Besides, look at it this way. You can sometimes miss while trying to kick for touch.
We’ve seen Dan Carter missing touch. What if Kenya had gathered the ball, came back at us and scored under the posts? Then we could even have ended up losing the game. What would be the critics saying now?”
Chivandire also rubbishes the popular theory that the line-out was the only feasible option of all four available that afternoon. “We could also have gone for scrum, yet I hear people only speaking of the line-out,” he says.
“With their top flanker off, it was eight against seven. Our number 8 (Lambert Groenwald) was having a terrific game. Our backline was dangerous and had been threatening the whole afternoon. We would have had a perfect scrum and they would have collapsed us and present us with opportunity for a penalty try. But then again, Kenya could also have broken away to score under the posts.”
Plausible argument. But whose idea was it not to take any of these seemingly better options?
“People will think I’m defending Danny and Liam,” says Chivandire. “To be honest, I can’t say who did that. I wasn’t in the technical box. I was on the other side attending to Smiley (Sanele Sibanda), who was injured. You can see that in the footage. In any case it wasn’t my space to ask who sent the (kicking) tee onto the field. I was the team manager, Dawsy (Brendan Dawson) was the coach.”
The devastating effect of not notching up a bonus point against Kenya, according to Chivandire, wasn’t instantly felt among Zimbabwe’s delegation after the game.
Indeed, this seems to be the case as seen in the post-match footage, which shows the ZRU president John Falkenberg and chief executive Colleen De Jong congratulating players on the field after the final whistle.
The players, who are half-smiling and half-embracing, do not look convinced they’ve just qualified for the World Cup.
Did a badly informed member of the team sent the wrong message onto the field, after the penalty was awarded, that just a straight win would send Zimbabwe to the World Cup?
Chivandire seems to indirectly back this perception.
“It struck us when Namibia started running riot against Madagascar. Hearts started to beat faster,” he says. “We stayed at the stadium to watch the game. The tempo of the game, from a Namibian view, to me personally, and looking at how poor Madagascar were, I knew we had to take a long, long trip to Russia (for the play-offs).”
“It was a big disappointment not to qualify. It was a very good group of players we had, technically and as a social group. I enjoyed managing them. The entire group was absolutely gutted, letting slip the opportunity of playing in the World Cup, which everyone was really looking forward to.”
After flying back home from Madagascar, Zimbabwe, as the African runners-up, still had an outside chance of sneaking through to the World Cup via an inter-continental play-off, known as the Repechage.
Europe’s runners-up Russia stood in the way in a tough once-off away tie, whose winner faced off with South America’s second best Uruguay in a two-legged clash for the elusive ticket to England. The Sables fought bravely, but eventually lost 23-15 to the Russians.
“It was never going to be easy,” says Chivandire. “We played in Siberia, in the middle of nowhere so to speak. It was psychologically very tough. If the game had been played in Zimbabwe we would have beaten Russia. That Repechage goes to the team that’s ranked higher. The system favours the strong. The strong gets stronger and the weak remain weak.”
The Sables squad that played in both the Africa zone qualifiers and against Russia will rank as the best the country has assembled in 20 years, ample proof that with all pulling together, Zimbabwe can field a side good enough to challenge some of the world’s second-tier nations.
The genuine opportunity of a 2015 World Cup place had seen some top-class players retracing their Zimbabwean roots, lured by the attraction of playing in the third biggest sporting showcase in the world.
Guy Cronje, attracted by the prospects of international rugby not immediately offered by South Africa, was among those to return to Zimbabwe. His twin brother Ross Cronje, accurately predicting his chances of playing for South Africa in declining Zimbabwe’s call, is now a Springbok, capped twice this year by the former world champions.
Another Diasporan returnee with bright prospects elsewhere was the former Ireland Under-20 scrumhalf Peter du Toit, who saw his chances of making it into a 2015 World Cup squad higher with Zimbabwe than with the Irish’s senior team.
Also in there was loose forward Lambert Groenwald, who had good first-class rugby experience under his belt in South Africa and was one of Zimbabwe’s most outstanding players in Madagascar.
Then there was the UK-born hooker Nicolo Nyemba and the England-based lock Martin Wolfenden and centre Sean Moan.
The overwhelming majority of the locally-based stars had also reached a pinnacle stage as rugby players of undoubted quality.
They were led by the classy centre and captain Daniel Hondo, the fall guy of the Madagascar debacle who, devastated by the barrage of criticism against him, retired from international rugby soon after returning home.
Another player in that bracket is the talented flank Jacques Leitao, who has courageously soldiered on with the Sables, but is also in the twilight of his career.
In spite of that, the class of 2014 couldn’t break the Namibians’ dominance over Zimbabwe, losing to them after opening the qualifiers with a big over hosts Madagascar.
It was the closet the Sables have come in many years, leading 20-10 at half time, but submitting meekly in the second half to lose 24-10 in the second game of the tournament.
“To me that was the turning point,” Chivandire says. “People talk about the Kenya game as the decider, but we could have settled matters with a win over Namibia. We lost a game we shouldn’t have lost. We led 20-10 at half time against Namibia in a World Cup qualifier! The game was there for the taking. Disappointing. To me it boils down to preparations. That shouldn’t have happened had we been better prepared
While the Zimbabwe team had left for Madagascar in high spirits, Chivanire feels lack of warm-up matches against decent opposition was the difference in the end.
“Coaches are under pressure, players are under pressure,” he says.
“How can you expect them to make decisions like that one in the Kenya game if you haven’t put them in those positions more than once before? Pressure is what I put it down to. You need to play a minimum of three quality games where coaches have to be forced to make decisions under pressure. I f you want to beat teams ranked above you, you can’t play teams ranked below you in warm-ups. How do you ensure that coaches and players learn to make decisions under pressure by playing a team you are beating 80 bar?”
Kenya’s recent domination of the Sables doesn’t surprise Chivandire, who has also held the position of Zimbabwe’s director of rugby after the 2014 qualifiers.
The East Africans have invested heavily in the sport in the last five years. While they succumbed to the Sables’ superior pool of talent in 2014, they had been the best prepared team in Madagascar.
At least US$2 million was put into preparations, with the Simbas playing tougher opposition in warm-up games.
“They have continued to improve in the last three years under the guidance of South African coach Jerome Pearwater — boosted by the country’s power to attract overseas opposition to play in Kenya
“In the last two seasons before the Africa Cup, they have played the likes of Portgual, Hong Kong and Germany,” says Chivandire.
“Why do they play those teams? Two things. One, those teams are ranked higher. When they play them, they learn to make decisions under pressure. They prepare themselves for the intensity of the Africa Cup and World Cup qualifier: how does the scrum feel against a top 20 team. How does the line-out feel against a top 20 team. How does defence feel against a top 20 team.
“Two, the Kenyans invite such sides to Africa and beat them. What does that do to rankings? Again, when the situation arises that Kenya has to play Germany in a Repachage, where is the game played? In Kenya of course.”
Having laid a huge marker in African rugby around 2014 through the ingenuity and competence of the administration of the time, Zimbabwean rugby is again limping under a new management battling to maintain the public’s confidence.
The biggest challenge is administration and players.
On the players’ front, it will take an even greater effort to rebuild a side with the same strengths and depth as the group that flirted with the World Cup in 2014.
The Sables Trust, the national team’s new partner, has a great role to play in this.
Chivandire, though still deeply concerned with player resources, believes there is some basis to work with.
“I think we do have talent, we’ve always had,” he says.
“Look at a player like Denford (Mutamangira). As far as I’m concerned, he’s a world-class loose-head prop. I’ve just given him as an example. He played in 2014. He’s the captain now. Look at young Farai Mudariki. He’s with a French Top 14 club. He’s part of the Sables set-up.
“My biggest worry is the locally-based players. We need to them to stay in condition for that kind of level. With all due respect, some of the teams in the Inter-City League (Zimbabwe’s premier domestic competition) are taking 124-0, the Africa Cup season! Is that the kind of competition for guys who are going to play Kenya or Namibia?”