JEFF Tigere made an effort to squeeze in as many folks as possible on his latest visit back home to Zimbabwe.
By Enock Muchinjo
Gweru, where he was born. Gokwe, where he grew up. Bulawayo, where he went to school and nurtured his sporting skills. And Harare, where many epic rugby battles were fought, and lasting friendships created.
Good laughs were shared with family and friends for the two weeks of the trip, and experiences taken back to Germany.
For the Bulawayo leg, the stopover would not be complete without making contact with another favourite son of both the city and Zimbabwean rugby — the ever-unconventional and unadulterated Victor Olonga.
Sport produces lifelong bonds, and in many cases — as with Tigere and Olonga in this instance — start as great rivalries.
It was in the 1990s when a young Tigere was settling into the squad of Bulawayo giants Old Miltonians, then Zimbabwe’s best rugby team, a tall ball-carrying openside flank who immediately displayed the makings of a Test number 7.
For Olonga, though, the destination was always going to be the other way. Amazing athletic prowess in that small frame, elite education background and comfortable suburban upbringing notwithstanding — Olonga chose the Bulawayo high-density outfit Highlanders Rugby Club, if not to win games, but to symbolise an uncompromising stance on racial transformation, a source of many problems for the former Sables captain throughout an 11-year long international career.
Nine years after hanging up his boots and making the decision to move back home to Zimbabwe from the United Kingdom — where he was once hailed as one of the fastest rugby players in English rugby — Olonga’s bitter clashes with Zimbabwean rugby authorities from his playing days do not bring back a flood of great memories, so prefers to watch proceedings from a distance now.
“We discussed a bit of Zimrugby, how it has gone down, that was all on the rugby front,” said Tigere, who is now a coach in Germany after playing top-flight rugby there for nearly a decade.
Tigere made his international debut against great rivals Namibia in 1998 in a curtain-raiser for the Springboks’ clash with England at Newlands in Cape Town.
Australian Mark Donato was Zimbabwe’s coach, captained by Brendan Dawson, and Tigere had the added pleasure of teaming up for the first time with his buddy Olonga — already a veteran of sorts in international rugby. And now both in their early 1940s, the meeting in Bulawayo was an emotional reunion for the ex-Sables stars, as was the Harare leg for Tigere.
“I did meet a few old friends also in Harare: Costa (Dinha), Max (Madziva), Tangai (Nemadire), just to name a few. We just talked about the basic things and how much work needs to be done to improve Zimrugby.”
Since Tigere left to live and play in Germany, the pendulum has swung in different directions in Zimbabwean rugby, so many lows and a few near-highs, but the current positive vibes the former Founders High School hero flew into also made the trip much more enjoyable. A talking point at the moment is the appointment of former Springboks coach Peter de Villiers, who has been tasked with guiding the Sables to next year’s World Cup in England.
“Peter de Villiers is a great coach, I spoke with him,” said Tigere.
“From what I heard, the plans ZRU has with him, and if they are implemented, then we will be going in the right direction. I didn’t get to watch any rugby where I was here, but from what I heard, talking to old friends who are still involved with Zimrugby, we do not have big players. Our players are small and quick, so in my opinion we need to play running rugby, quick rucks and more offloads as we do not have the size of the other countries.”
Tigere, who also played under local coaches Godwin “Jaws” Murambiwa and Chris Lampard for the Sables in addition to several international sevens caps, joined his first club in Germany in 2003 and instantly gained foothold there.
Germany traditionally belongs to the backwaters of world rugby, but they are slowly emerging out if it. With vast resources at their disposal and knowledgeable foreign personnel being hired, they could soon start to challenge at least some of the world’s second-tier teams.
Quite a number of Zimbabweans have moved there in batches in the last 15 years following in the footsteps of Tigere’s pioneer generation, and more expats are trickling in with each passing year.
“The competitiveness of rugby in Germany is coming up well thanks to the sevens programme they have put in place,” commented Tigere.
“The clubs in Germany that managed to bring in players from outside have upped the level of competition within the first Bundesliga. Another thing is that the Germany national team has improved through the Wild Rugby Academy, which focuses on the development of the sport in Germany by bringing in expertise from the stronger rugby-playing nations. They have brought in players from all over the world with German ancestry. They are not really recognised names, but guys who played South African varsity rugby and some from the Sharks and Lions academies who knew they were not good enough to play Super Rugby.”
While Tigere was happy to discuss Zimrugby in-depth, even hinting on future involvement if workable opportunities arise, Olonga is a different story altogether.
Would the ex-Sables speedster accept an offer to assist in any role if he were approached?
“Never!” came the sharp retort from Olonga,
“Not me, thanks. Zimrugby is complex. It’s not for a guy like me. It’s not the kind of stuff I need to get involved in. I don’t want to end up fighting people again. Rugby is over for me, I was involved in it for a very long time. I’d rather do something else.”
The older brother of Henry Olonga, Zimbabwe’s history-making cricketer, added on: “There are complex issues in Zimbabwean rugby. Remember there was (ex- ZRU interim president) Russell (KarimaZondo) and now there is Aaron (Jani; now substantive president). I don’t know what’s happening there so I’d rather stay away. I’m no longer doing rugby. For me, rugby is a game I played just because I was good at it. If I had other options I wouldn’t have played.”
Olonga — who fancied himself as a flyhalf but was played mostly at fullback or on the wing for Zimbabwe — does however reserve special praise for new coach de Villiers. “He is obviously a very good coach, they don’t come any better,” said Olonga. “His credentials speak for themselves. He did well with Springboks.”
But Olonga is not one to go over the top, given his past experiences with Zimbabwean rugby. The word “hope”, which has been on many people’s lips following the appointment of de Villiers as Sables coach and the general buoyant mood in the game at the moment, invites outright scorn from Olonga.
“Hope? There is always hope,” he said. “It cost nothing to hope. There was hope when (Mark) Donato was appointed. There is a lot of stuff that must be fixed in Zim. (De Villiers) He is a good coach. But the Springboks are not the Sables. They are miles apart. There is a lot of hard work that must be done. And you know, you don’t need to work to hope.”
Firm reminder how little has changed of Victor Olonga.