Diamond that shone to the world

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The Sables (in green and white) delight in their opening Gold Cup win over Senegal in Dakar three weeks ago.

FOR the first try, Zimbabwe fullback Andy Ferreira fielded the ball well after Romania’s fly-half failed to find touch.

By Enock Muchinjo

Ferreira passed to inside centre Campbell Graham, whose near-perfect kick downfield was initially fumbled. Wing Peter Kaulback maintained composure though to gather the ball, them dummied deftly both ways before releasing outside centre Richard Tsimba — who wheeled away to score in the corner. A great team try that will please rugby purists any day, but it was the second of Tsimba’s brace in New Zealand that afternoon in 1987 that announced the arrival of one of the world’s most respected players of all time — a barrier-breaking icon so good they posthumously made him a World Rugby Hall of Fame.

It was a breathtaking individual effort by Tsimba, an absolute gem in which the brilliant Zimbabwe fly-half Craig Brown must also take a huge amount of credit.
Scrum-half Malcolm Jellicoe, Zimbabwe’s captain for the inaugural Rugby World Cup, retrieved the ball from the base of the scrum, finding his half-back partner Brown lurking on the inside.

Collecting the ball from a slightly low position and off-balance, the mercurial Brown showed great skill to get past a defender, then two more, right through the middle. On the crucial moment, the quick-thinking Brown evaded a tackle and offloaded to Tsimba, and one of the best remembered moments in the history of the Rugby World Cup was about to be recorded.

First, Tsimba danced his way past the Romania defence, cutting inside and subtracting with graceful movement, instinct and self-assurance.

Then suddenly he changed direction, with an audacious swing of the body, simultaneously showing a clean pair of the heels — lightning pace of an Olympic sprinter — to finish off a sublime try between the posts. Tsimba could not have chosen more hallowed turf to score his way into the hearts of world rugby — the iconic Eden Park in Auckland, where four weeks later the All Blacks would be lifting the first-ever Rugby World Cup trophy — a place any rugby player wants to leave footprints.

The commentator’s narration of Tsimba’s try, which is available online, complete with the video footage, is a classic piece of commentary, a befitting soundtrack to a moment this sport will speak about for many more years to come.

“Well taken by Brown . . . cuts out his opposite man,” exclaims the commentator. “Tsimba . . . there’s room for Richard Tsimba here. And there’s the overlap! Tsimba on his own! Oh lovely stuff! Can he get there! What a try!”

History records that Zimbabwe narrowly lost 21-20 to Romania in a match they really should have won, a particularly demoralising result given that the Sables never stood a chance against their next pool opponents — quarter-finalists Scotland and losing finalists France — who hammered them 60-21 and 70-12 respectively.

But for Zimbabwe, results notwithstanding, being the only African team in that inaugural World Cup — as would be case again at the 1991 edition — was a source of great pride and honour for a country still regarded as new in the international community. For Tsimba, an extra feather in the cap was not only being the first-ever black person to play rugby for Zimbabwe, but, in fact, the only black player in that entire 1987 Rugby World Cup. His nickname, the “Black Diamond”, stems from that. “It came from the 87 World Cup,” Kennedy Tsimba, another Hall of Famer, tells this paper to mark the 18th anniversary of his older brother’s death.

“He was seen as a rough diamond of the World Cup and him being the only black player in the tournament, I guess they joined it together and it stuck. Being the first black player to play in rugby’s World Cup and to star in the tournament created a culture that would grow immensely.

“He (Richard) is the pioneer of the wave of black Zimbabwean players excelling in world rugby. He set the benchmark for local players to dream internationally.”

Only three black people on the planet are inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Famer. The third, alongside the Tsimba brothers, is Nelson Mandela. The brothers will be the first to admit how lucky they were to shine in a sport previously seen as a no-go area for blacks. Their father had done well in life, so was able to send his children to good private schools. Richard learnt to play rugby at Springvale House and developed his skills at Peterhouse College. Even though, opportunities were limited for him as a black player in the early 1980s, so he joined Chaminuka Rugby Club, Zimbabwe’s first organised black club, with a membership then yearning for recognition at both playing and administrative level. Tsimba’s phenomenal talent would soon become too good to ignore, and in 1987 he was included in national coach Brian Murphy’s World Cup-bound squad.

“Richard was a game changer,” says Gerald Maguranyanga, a former rugby administrator and development coach. “Rugby in the 1980s and 1990s was divided into black and white. But you see, I have always maintained that people, any people, love a superstar, regardless of colour, shape, origin or history. So even the most uncooperative, most obstinate of people cannot ignore a superstar. Richard shook the establishment. He was not just your normal rugby player the establishment could treat like any other.”

Tsimba’s 1987 World Cup exploits definitely went a very long way in changing attitudes. Three more players of colour were included in Zimbabwe’s 25-man squad for the next World Cup four years later. These were eighth-man Honeywell Nguruve, alongside utility backs Elimon “Bedford” Chimbima and Ian Noble.

The mid-1980s had witnessed a significant rise in black rugby interest, and Tsimba was a community idol with contagious charm and natural ability to inspire others. Everyone was in absolute awe of him, and by playing in an influential position, he defied the black rugby player stereotype of that time. “You see again, rugby in the early days of Zimbabwe had stereotyped blacks to sprinters or finishers,” continues Maguranyanga.

“You could only be trusted with running with the ball and scoring a try. Richard was good you couldn’t keep him out on the periphery, rotting and waiting for the ball at the wing. At number 12, or 13, where he played, you get more ball and you have more say on the game, you make more decisions. When he played so well at centre, he couldn’t be ignored anymore. .”

What made Tsimba special was how he played rugby with so much panache and swagger, a hallmark which transformation stalwart Temba Mliswa reckons helped change the sport.
“He had exceptional skills and ability which had never been seen before,” says Mliswa.

“Rugby those days was sheer brute, strength and nothing else. But Richard brought in flair which demonstrated that you could play rugby and excel without brute force. He had the ability to avoid an opponent. Rugby being a physical sport was known to be macho. Taking one out physically was rugby. But he took one out without being physical. He avoided contact by all means, which showed he was exceptional.”

Tsimba’s play-style could fit into the requirements of any international team today, certainly a player well ahead of his time.

“He was also a great ball distributor and his change of pace and direction were amazing,” adds Mliswa. “He was a great team player and exciting rugby player to watch. There is no other black rugby player, or any rugby player, who played rugby the way he did. He enjoyed his rugby and also his fun after. The Rugby World Cup where he debuted will long live in our lives for he was astute and equally precise in his ability to handle pressure.”

Tsimba’s ability was also well-respected within the national side, and as a very good black player during a time of change, the importance of his success cannot be overstated. In a short documentary to promote the Rugby World Cup, Tsimba’s 1987 and 1991 Zimbabwe teammate Alex Nicholls speaks glowingly of the late Harare-born star. “Richard, we called him Dick, was an incredibly talented player,”Nicholls says in the video. “He could run, he was fast, he could tackle, and (had) great vision. He was a great player.”

Tsimba would play club rugby in the United States after the 1987 World Cup, not the ideal destination, rugby-wise, for a man of his ability, which meant he didn’t really enjoy the scintillating domestic career his talents deserved.

“He was offered an unofficial contract from Transvaal in South Africa after that World Cup but opted to take up the US offer as he wanted to study,” explains his young brother Kennedy, a Currie Cup record-holder.

With Richard breaking new ground and excelling in a previously all-white sport, a much younger Kennedy was obviously watching and would make his own piece of history in 1998 by becoming the first black person to captain the country in rugby — 11 years after his big brother had been the first black to wear the green-and-white hoops of the Sables.

Richard was killed in a car crash in Harare in April 2000 at the age of 34, leaving behind three young daughters and wife Cleo Tsimba, the former television newscaster. He also left behind an indelible mark on world rugby.

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