When the class of ’87 charmed the world

IMAGINE my elation, having heard so much about it from those much older, to finally stumble upon the full broadcast of Zimbabwe’s first-ever Rugby World Cup match – a momentous sporting occasion in the history of this country.

Enock Muchinjo

I had previously just came across snippets, one of which formed the storyline of my special feature three weeks ago marking the 18th anniversary of the death of Richard Tsimba, the iconic World Rugby Hall of Fame inductee.

Of course, Tsimba’s two stunning tries against Romania in New Zealand in May 1987 made him the standout performer among the two sets of competitors – but there were other fine Zimbabwean players who shone brightly that afternoon 31 years ago at the famous Eden Park, where the All Blacks beat France four weeks later to lift the inaugural Rugby World Cup.

But there was that something really special about Tsimba. In my piece few weeks ago, Gerald Maguranyanga perfectly summed it up, remarking that Tsimba belonged to a special breed of superstars that are so easy to fall in love with, super-talented athletes who, in a way, have put sport at the service of humanity in that they make adoring fans worldwide forget the barriers of race, ethnicity, social-class background and many other differences that divide mankind.

Tsimba was in every respect a superstar, one of modern rugby’s earliest.

That he totalled under 10 international caps was quite a pity, but the class Tsimba exhibited in those few matches, and more importantly the everlasting impact he made on the game of rugby – as a pioneering black player for both Zimbabwe and the Rugby World Cup – were enough to earn this top-notch centre a place among the great men on the planet who have made enormous contribution to the sport.

Tsimba’s flair, vision, sharp eye for gap, running skills, audacious swing of the body, amazing change of direction and acceleration were all on full display against the Romanians. His size could deceive, good gracious he was tiny, but then he had the heart of a lion and was incredibly solid in defence.

The smallest man on the field in almost all the games he played, and more often the best player.

That men like Tsimba helped revolutionise world rugby isn’t an exaggeration at all, as later on we would witness exceptional small-frame players in the mould of Shane Williams, George Gregan, Jason Robinson and many other diminutive superstars who achieved as much success as anybody.

On that day in 1987, cheered on by a partisan crowd of about 4 000, mainly Zimbabwean exiles and local New Zealanders, Tsimba put his team on the brink of a famous win with a breath-taking solo try that left the young and courageous African side well-poised 20-9 with 17 minutes remaining.

“Well, if the Zimbabweans can hang on for the remaining 16 minutes, this day will rank, I’m sure, alongside one or two of those other great days in their history like in 1949 when they drew and beat the All Blacks,” remarked famed New Zealand broadcaster Brendan Telfer in the commentary box.

There had been so much hype in the Zimbabwean camp around Tsimba going into that World Cup and for a 21-year-old, the only black person in the entire touring party, there was some fear that the pressure of expectations might prove too much for him to contain.

But real superstars rise to the occasion in such situations and Tsimba stepped up at Eden Park, the spiritual home of New Zealand rugby where thousands gathered in 2015 to pay last respects to the great Jonah Lomu.

“They speak highly of this young man,” Telfer reacted after the second try by Tsimba. “They claim he is a player of genuine world-class, that’s what they’ve been telling us this whole week. And after this performance, and one or two breaks we’ve seen from him in this match, he has certainly lived up to his reputation. He’s the toast of his nation at the moment.”

As fate would have it, Zimbabwe didn’t manage to hang on. The more experienced Romania staged a dramatic comeback in the last 13 minutes to narrowly win 21-20 against a Zimbabwean outfit that had enjoyed more control of the game up until then, displaying the better balls skills throughout.

And what a terrible blow it was for Zimbabwe to lose their star man Tsimba in those last 13 minutes, definitely the turning point of the game.

In scoring his second try, Tsimba had badly hurt his shoulder, despite him bravely staying on the field for a few more minutes.

The very concerned expression on the face of the veteran Zimbabwe left winger Eric Barrett, at 35 the oldest member of the Sables side, said it all.

Barrett, who had to resign as a selector to revive his playing career so he could go to the World Cup, is seen in the broadcast signalling to the Zimbabwe bench that Tsimba was really struggling, and then arm around his young teammate’s injured shoulder, he escorted the dazzling centre off the field with a troubled look that captured what was to be a greatly disappointing ending for the Zimbabweans.

Befittingly, Tsimba walked off to a standing ovation from the crowd, and his special place in history was secured.
“The most talented player we’ve seen on the field today,” was what Telfer had to say. “And he’s scored a try we will long remember here at Eden Park.”

His spellbinding second try had put Zimbabwe in a very good position at 20-9 and while his exit meant the Africans were now deprived of their main weapon in attack – for a player of such all-round quality – Tsimba left the defence side of things also heavily handicapped.

Zimbabwe’s captain, the outstanding scrumhalf Malcolm Jellicoe, conceded in the post-match interview that Tsimba’s injury decided the match in favour of the Romanians.

“Very unfortunate to lose in the end,” said Jellicoe. “Losing our centre Dickson (Tsimba’s nickname) gave us a bit of hesitation in the backline and they (Romania) broke through twice, which had not happened before during the game. Losing him, we lost that final understanding with the new centre and the wing, which is how they got through.

While Tsimba was simply unbelievable, for me the other exciting Zimbabwean player on view had been the precocious flyhalf Craig Brown.

Brown’s role to set up Tsimba’s second try depicts the creativity and coolness under pressure in the flyhalf this country has not had for many years: the efficiency in running across the advantage line, ability to quickly access attacking advantages as well as slick distribution skills.

It’s hard to believe Brown was only 19 at that time. Ask any coach, it requires rare ability and maturity for a 19-year-old to be entrusted by any country with the chief decision-making role of the team at Test level.

Take, for example, France’s 19-year-old Matthieu Jalibert. No teenage flyhalf had played Six Nations rugby in 50 years until the young French sensation’s debut against Ireland three months ago.

One can dismiss this comparison and argue that Brown was only a Zimbabwean 19-year-old, playing for a side whose World Cup squad was nearly half the entire senior rugby playing population of the whole country – just a bunch of amateurs who included farmers, factory managers, salesmen, students and what have you.

True, the rawness of youth was also evident, but you only have to look at Brown’s attacking craft in that game – the confidence, great variety of passing, decent kicking, good footwork and pace – to appreciate that him and a lot of the Zimbabwean players on that day were way ahead of their time.

Given how both opportunities to develop as a rugby player and the financial incentives in the sport have improved over the years, the bulk of those Sables from 87 would be part of any of the professional set-ups across the globe had they belonged to this era.

Oh yes, certainly someone like the 22-year-old big and mobile eighthman Mark Neill – the heaviest player in Zimbabwe’s team that afternoon – who scored one of his team’s three tries by picking up the ball and gaining yards to crash over the line.

Tall, 109kgs and all – Neill was a key man in Zimbabwe’s game plan in which coach Brian Murphy instructed his young troops to utilise their much heavier forwards pack to take on the Romanians upfront.

Romania though were better in the set-pieces, winning the majority of scrums and line-outs. But big Mark Neill was a tremendous force in the loose exchanges – really top-class stuff – and fellow back-rowers Dirk Buitendag and Rod Gray also showed bags of ability and enthusiasm in a department that, to this day, is a refreshingly strong point of Zimbabwean rugby.

They arrived in New Zealand unheralded and to some people they should not have been in that World Cup, they said Zimbabwe did not belong in that league – among the 16 top rugby playing nations on the planet.

But as the gutsy young men from a small fledgling nation reduced the more fancied Europeans to schoolboys for a lengthy period of the game, the pessimists – including former All Blacks player and match co-commentator Grahame Thorne, who had predicted a 35-point plus crushing win for Romania – were forced to eat their words.

“Romanian spirits have been broken…men adrift on the grass of Eden Park at the moment,” remarked Thorne as a well organised Zimbabwean team grafted its way to what would have been one of the most famous results of the Rugby World Cup.

Zimbabwe had played the game of their life, and fatefully the workload started taking toll at the wrong moment for them.

Replacement winger Liviu Hodorcă broke through from 30-metre out, last three minutes of the game, to score the try that won it for Romania.

A cruel result for the young Zimbabweans – who later lost heavily to Scotland and France in Pool D – but they emerged out of that World Cup having earned a huge amount of respect for themselves and their country.

It was a heartrending outcome – but a more devastating experience for Zimbabwean rugby – after showing so much promise, has been the inability to build on the wave of excitement and solid foundation set 31 years ago.
Zimbabwe have not qualified for the World Cup since 1991.

This year, though, the country has launched its most spirited campaign in 27 years to return to the World Cup, a place where they feel they belong.

They have everything going for them at the moment: a competent and dynamic administration, good sponsorship deals, several gestures of goodwill, a coach of world-class repute and players of unquestionable quality.

Zimbabwean rugby has got us believing again.

But then, rivals aren’t resting on their laurels either, and the Sables of 2018 will need a great amount of inspiration to qualify for the World Cup.

For this, they must look no further than the gallant troops of 1987, who warmed the hearts of the world on the hallowed turf of Eden Park.

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