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Same beginning, different journeys

WHEN one Facebook group went down memory lane this week and posted the Zimbabwe Schools squad from the 2002 Craven Week edition, rugby fans were swept away by a wave of nostalgia and reminiscences of early days.

The best recognised name on that list of 22, only when talking about it now, was that of Churchill Boys High’s Tendai Mtawarira.

Going into that tour, the brilliantly-gifted Peterhouse College flyhalf, David Cloete, was in fact the most heralded player on the roster for the Zimbabwean schoolboys.

Another much-hyped player for the trip to Pietermaritzburg 16 years ago had been Cloete’s schoolmate, the tight-head prop Brian Mujati — who would years later join his fellow countryman, The Beast, in donning the sacred Springbok jersey.

So two Springboks and five Zimbabwe internationals was what that 2002 Craven Week side produced — full evidence of the quality not only existing in that particular schoolboy side, but indeed the entire structure of Zimbabwean junior rugby those days.

As for Mtawarira, forcing his way into Zimbabwe Schools’ starting line-up for that Craven Week — coming from Churchill – was seen as an achievement then, in an era of dominance by the big private schools.

That Churchill had contributed two Craven Week players for Zimbabwe that year — one in the starting line-up and the other on the bench — was also a source of bragging rights for the Bulldogs against their old rivals Prince Edward, whose one representative in the entire 22-man touring party, Rimo Mundoma, had to be content with a place among the reserves.

Accompanying Mtawarira to Craven Week from Churchill that year was none other than Denford Mutamangira.

While Mtawarira would go on to complete the rest of his schooling at the prestigious Peterhouse, then becoming the much-revered South Africa rugby star and the Springboks’ most-capped prop in history, Mutamangira has stuck thick and thin with his homeland in an international career spanning just over a decade now.

Mutamangira is Zimbabwe’s captain these days, he has been since 2015, and he could become the first man since 1991 to skipper his country to the Rugby World Cup.

A quiet and humble type of captain, Mutamangira’s leadership style seems to have received the firm endorsement of new Zimbabwe coach Peter de Villiers.

He prefers to be the practical leader who sets examples for others to follow — in every respect a team man who holds himself to the same standards that he expects of others.

Interestingly, like Mtawarira, Mutamangira is also a loose-head prop.

But it was not Beast who elbowed him out of the starting line-up at Craven Week in 2002.

Mtawarira was an eighthman back then, later to be switched into the front-row in South Africa.

The loose-head slot for Zimbabwe Schools in Pietermaritzburg 16 years ago was taken by one Eric Vanoah of Peterhouse.

His rugby, though, pretty much ended at that level, just like few more members of that squad.

In addition to Mutamangira — the sparkling flyhalf Cloete, fullback Bruce Chibesa as well as wingers Sean Moan and Andre Pike went on to play for the Sables.

It was a case of a handful of caps, though, for these other players, while Mutamangira has been there consistently all these years since the reign of Chris Lampard, Brendan Dawson, Cyprian Mandenge and now Peter de Villiers.

He was there when Zimbabwe were crowned African champions in 2012 and two years later he was around again when a mere bonus point denied the Sables a place at the 2015 World Cup.

Since his Test debut in 2006, Mutamangira has been there through the joyful, teary and heart-breaking moments.

A one-club man in Zimbabwe with Harare Sports Club since his boyhood days, the man they call Dedzwa in rugby circles has also enjoyed stints in South Africa and Scotland, and now is the elder statesman of the national side.

A lot of Mutamangira’s dear comrades — like him very patriotic and fiercely loyal to the green-and-white stripes of the Sables — have one by one fallen by the wayside.

But at 34, the dream is not over just yet for the gentle giant of Zimbabwe’s front row.

It could be something to do with the tenacious bulldog spirit of Churchill, or the upbringing of Budiriro — away from the material comforts of the private schools and the western suburbs.

Going to the World Cup in Japan next year will be the a perfect ending if Zimbabwe were to qualify.

And if the Beast makes the Bok squad again for another World Cup, they can bow out of international rugby together — the two exceptional Churchill kids who defied the odds to make it into Zimbabwe Schools 16 years ago — but now fight for different national flags.

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