IN world rugby, Tonderai Chavhanga is best known as a record‑holding Springbok, a speed demon whose Test career should have lasted much longer than it did.
By Enock Muchinjo
To a lot of people in Zimbabwe, the fondest memories will forever be that of a very special schoolboy, and it takes very unique talent for one so young to be a household name as Chavhanga became in the late 1990s.
Chavhanga (known then as Tonderai Kawaza) made his first team debut for Harare’s Prince Edward School in 1998 aged just 15, a feat unheard of in an era of very good health for Zimbabwean schoolboy rugby across the nation.
Since his early days at Blakiston Primary School, Chavhanga was chiefly known for his prowess on the running track and a professional career as a 100-metre or 200-metre sprinter was a real possibility.
But it is remembered nostalgically how the star-studded Prince Edward first team of 1996 hard-wired rugby into the lives of many of the school’s pupils, none more so than Chavhanga — a raw-paced and big-hearted dynamite who would later explode onto the scene to become the first black person from this country to play rugby for South Africa.
“Tonde talks about how the 96 Tigers team made him want to achieve more,” Shaun De Souza, one of the star players of that famous PE side, says.
“He was a sprinter and had made a mark on the athletics track, but chose the rugby route which for me was a great move.”
Other brilliantly gifted players in the class of 1996 — coached by the late former Springboks utility back Ian Robertson — were the likes of Costa Dinha, Marvin Chirume, Doc Snook, Matt Henderson, Hope Huni, Clint Smith, Fambai Marara, amongst an array of red-hot talent then setting the schoolboy rugby scene alight.
Robertson’s boys went unbeaten in Zimbabwe the entire season, then ventured into the lion’s den of South Africa where they defeated Glenwood High and St Stithians College — only losing by one point to the prestigious Michaelhouse College.
It then comes as no surprise that someone like Dinha would later captain Zimbabwe with remarkable distinction while De Souza himself enjoyed a long international career with the Sables, skippering the side on two occasions.
But life doesn’t follow any set pattern. Chavhanga’s adult rugby career turned out to be more fruitful than of his Prince Edward heroes, being snapped by up Free State Cheetahs barely out of his teens in 2002 and then making his Super Rugby debut for Stormers two years later.
Just three years after arriving in South Africa, the fresh-faced 21-year-old Bok debutant would be scoring a record six tries against Uruguay in 2005, much to the delight of coach Jake White — who had taken the young Zimbabwean under his wings from their days together with SA Under-21s.
“People have their opinions about athletes who leave their motherland to ply their trade in other countries,” remarks De Souza, himself a speedy winger who had also set schools sprinting records.
“We must remember one thing – these athletes are trying to make a living with the talent they have, so would you fault someone for making his trade in foreign lands when they don’t have the same opportunities locally? It’s like any other skilled person who has left the country for greener pastures. I applaud the guys who made the cut outside the country like Kennedy Tsimba, Tendai Mtawarira, Brian Mujati and Tonde. They have opened the doors for Zimbabwean players not just in South Africa, but throughout the world. Zimbabwe has talent and we can only get better.”
The players mentioned by De Souza were all products of a functioning schools system and coaches like the legendary Robertson – who presided over one of the most successful stretches of Prince Edward rugby – were the brains behind it all.
“Coach Ian Robertson always had an eye for talent, there was no doubt about that,” says Vakai “Fish” Hove, who captained the invincible 1999 PE side, spearheaded by Chavhanga.
“Tonde was a cornerstone of our 99 Tigers campaign. He was always happy to be contributing on and off the field.
I’m happy to call him a friend and I know that no matter what he is doing, he is giving 100 percent. He was rooted out very early, running on for the Tigers in form two. He had an eagerness to learn, raw brutal pace and love for the game. It was not a surprise for his Tigers teammates when he reached the highest levels of the game.”
While Chavhanga stood out as an exceptionally talented individual, he was in pretty good company among the PE group he teamed up with.
Hove himself went on to play for Western Province Under-21s and represented the senior team in the Vodacom Cup.
Lock Munya Mhonda and fullback Eddie Takaendesa played for Botswana and Germany respectively.
Forbes Roberts, a stalwart in the Tigers front row, became a full Zimbabwe international as so did Alfred Sairai – an ever-present tight-head prop for the Sables between 2004 and 2013.
Winger Gordon Pangeti also featured in the Vodacom Cup with Pumas while the injury-prone but brilliant flyhalf Piet Benade starred for Western Province in the Currie Cup.
“It was an awesome PE side,” recalls Benade, now in the twilight of his club career in Cape Town. “We had two amazing years in 1999 and 2000 where we dominated locally as well as challenging the top 20 schools in South Africa.
“I was in the same boarding house at Prince Edward with Tonderai and after 20 years we are still close friends. Its testament to the bonds that rugby create. From a very young age Tonderai was always very fast but it was great to see how hard he worked at improving the skills that did not come naturally. His work ethic and dedication to his fitness, strength and improving hid skills got him to the highest possible level.”
Injuries have stalked Chavhanga throughout his career, and now at the age of 34, top-class rugby is over for him.
Sharks made an effort to resuscitate him in 2014, and it was that man again, Jake White, ever unhesitant to take the risk with the flying Zimbabwean.
But injuries took toll again, and Chavhanga lasted just five appearances for the Durban franchise.
A missing link to Chavhanga’s career was the he never played any form of competitive senior rugby in his beloved homeland.
Tomorrow in Harare, adoring fans who used to fill schools grounds to catch a glimpse of this gem of a player will finally have a chance to see in flesh the whizz-kid who has become a man now, a veteran of the game.
Chavhanga is one of guest players who will turn out for a Zimbabwe Select side against South Africa’s Blue Bulls at Harare Sports Club.
Of course, it will not be the Chavhanga who, in his pomp, became one of the most lethal finishers in world rugby.
Nonetheless, for some of us who witnessed the beginning in 1998, what an ending it will be tomorrow — 20 years later and in a country it all started.