IN line with the general mood of the country, Zimbabwean rugby too feels it could be on the threshold of something special.
By Enock Muchinjo
Qualifying for the World Cup in 2019 — the first time Zimbabwe would have achieved the feat in more than two decades — is prime priority.
But there is much more.
The new Zimbabwe Rugby Union (ZRU) executive headed by former international winger Aaron Jani has promised sweeping reforms set to “change Zimrugby forever”, and hopes the recent political change in the country — if it ushers in the economic recovery yearned — can also boost rugby’s cause.
Jani is known as a workaholic with a brilliant rugby brain, strategist and successful businessman in his own right.
But none quite eloquently put across the vision of the new executive than the experienced administrator Losson Mtongwiza, one of the union’s two vice-presidents.
A strong-willed individual who has been in the trenches of Zimrugby for a number of years, Mtongwiza has a previous term as a ZRU vice-president, a position he held while still in his 20s.
Later on the former Harare Sports Club player-coach had two tenures as the national team’s manager before his unceremonious departure in 2014 just before the Sables missed World Cup qualification by a whisker.
But Mtongwiza has always longed for a comeback, driven by his conviction that given a position of influence again, he can use his knowledge of rugby and business acumen to turn around the fortunes of the game.
“The major plan is to commercialise rugby in this country,” said Mtongwiza this week. “This sport needs to turn professional. It’s long overdue.”
Having been part of the hardworking and self-sacrificing backroom staff that almost took Zimbabwe to the World Cup in 2015, the nature of Mtongwiza’s fallout and eventual removal as Sables manager hurt him a lot.
But now in a more influential position alongside Jani, to whom he was a running mate for last weekend’s election, Mtongwiza has a wonderful opportunity to finally get it right in the quest for World Cup qualification.
“First of all we must appoint a professional coach to work on full-time basis,” he said. “Someone who is well-respected. Someone who has coached a first-tier nation.”
Big hint there, from Mtongwiza, that the next Sables coach will come from outside the country.
Who is it going to be?
“I cannot answer that for now,” replied Mtongwiza. “First, we must put in place an appointments committee, which will then manage the appointment process. But what I can tell you is that we will create the environment for that coach to be able to operate. The money is there for the right people and the right product. There are people who are willing to support us if we create the right environment. We are looking for a coach who will be able to attract players who have played at the highest level in the world to come and play for Zimbabwe.”
In 2014, when Zimbabwe nearly qualified, the country had invited a number of top-class players from the Diaspora who, lured by the magnet of the World Cup, answered their homeland’s call and almost took the team to the Promised Land.
“I’m not talking here about people like Beast (Springbok prop Tendai Mtawarira) and (Australia international David) Pocock, who are, what do you call it in soccer? Cup-tied,” said Mtongwiza. “We are looking at guys who haven’t played for other countries but have played for Sharks, Cheetahs, Brumbies, Crusaders, that level. Those are the people we want to attract.”
With a foreign coach most likely to be appointed, there will also be a place in the new structure for former Zimbabwe captain Brendan Dawson, the coach when the Sables missed out on the 2015 World Cup ticket by a hair’s breadth.
“From a continuity point of view, someone like Dawsie will have to be involved,” Mtongwiza said. “Even Cyprian (Mandenge), the immediate past coach. There is a place for everyone. We just need to work it out in such a way that there is no duplication of duties and no in-fighting.”
What particularly excites Mtongwiza is the level of goodwill all round and the pledges of support the new administration has received.
“The amount of interest it has generated, the phone calls, the number of people willing to help us, it’s amazing,” he said. “That’s why I can sit down here and tell you that we will find sponsorship for the National League, that we will transform the standard of play in the NRL and that we will get that league on television.”
“We will also be big on development, the juniors. Zim rugby is set to change forever.”
Indeed, already there have been early signs of that goodwill with Harare attorney firm Titan Law, which this year spearheaded the formation of a Sables Trust — the national side’s welfare body — throwing its full weight behind the new administration.
Lawyer Gerald Mlotshwa, a devout rugby fan and son-in-law of the country’s new President Emmerson Mnangagwa, takes over as the Sables Trust chairman.
Colleen De Jong, the former ZRU chief executive and executive committee member of Rugby Afrique, assumes the position of the Sevens team’s committee.
“We will have various committees to help us restructure the union,” Mtongwiza says. “We will have a human resources consultant from a top-listed company coming to look at the structures.”
Results on the field, more than anything, will be the yardstick by which the new administration will be measured. And they have their work cut out. Namibia and Kenya, who will be the biggest threat in the World Cup quest next year, looked miles ahead in the Africa Cup this past season.
But Mtongwiza knows it and he can boldly declare that Zimbabwe can so easily overcome all its continental rivals if the people involved stop pressing the self-destruct button.
“We are already ahead of them, we have always been,” argues Mtongwiza. “We have just unorganised. We have not been doing things the right way. We must take our position, and the position has always been ahead of them. The only team that is our competition is Namibia. The other guys are not our competition. I’m not saying we don’t respect them. We will respect them. But we have players playing at a much higher level than theirs.
“Namibia as well. They are not invincible. The difference is they’ve been professional; playing in the Currie Cup and playing Test games against sides the likes of Uruguay and Georgia, who are in the top 20 in the world or thereabout. But we can beat them. We have a bigger population and we have more players. We just need to tap into that.”
Passionate about his sport no doubt, but then that fire has also been Mtongwiza’s biggest undoing: constant clashes with players when he was the national side’s manager, and the public fallout with the John Falkenberg-led executive, which proved the final straw.
“The relationship is fantastic now,” Mtongwiza says. “All players who accused me of things when I left have been phoning me, asking me to come back.
“That was the major reason I contested for this post. They realised I was not the problem. When I left, things got worse. Where rugby was when I was there and where rugby was when I left spoke volumes of my work.”
The new ZRU administration comes into office at the same time with a new Minister of Sports, Kazembe Kazembe, a former executive of the country’s biggest football club, Dynamos.
“I think Kazembe Kazembe will do well, we wish him all the best,” said Mtongwiza. “He’s a new kid on the block, so to speak. So are we. He’s full of energy, so are we. I think our combination will bring results. Having gone to Allan Wilson, I’m sure he knows the euphoria and camaraderie rugby brings. We are super-excited. We can’t wait to see him and put our plans across.”
As we spoke, Mtongwiza was running a bit late for a meeting with an icon of the global game, the great Kennedy Tsimba, who is currently back home in Harare. So we had to wrap it up.
“These are the kind of people who have been calling us saying ‘how can I help?’. He is in the World Rugby Hall of Fame. He’s a busy guy, but he wants to help in any way he can. Why shouldn’t we use guys like him, even as an ambassador? That’s the kind of support we are being offered by people like Kennedy.”
Exciting stuff to hear, but the real work begins now.