Daring to dream again

JAN Ferreira could already feel the goose pimples of standing in front of the All Blacks at the Olympic Stadium in London on 24 September 2015, receiving the challenge of the famous haka.

By Enock Muchinjo

It would have been the pinnacle in the careers of many of Zimbabwe’s players, facing all the greats — Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu, Keven Mealamu, Kieran Read — some of the finest rugby players to ever grace the game.

What stood between Zimbabwe and its date with destiny that afternoon in July 2014 was an achievable bonus-point win over Kenya at the Mahamasina Stadium in Antananarivo, capital city of Madagascar.

As Ferreira sat tightly in the dugout, injured from the previous game against Namibia so unable to take part, the Sables looked well poised on the path to England 2015, coasting as they did to a 28-10 win over the East Africans.

Fatefully, the bonus point did not come — cruel, cruel fate — and it was Namibia instead who were going to the World Cup to open their account in the British capital against eventual champions New Zealand.

“I remember sitting there watching, and I remember Liam (Middleton; technical advisor) and Dawsie (head coach Brendan Dawson) had told us, ‘guys, these are the calculations’. We needed to secure the win first, and we had to beat Kenya by a certain margin,” says Ferreira.

“Second thing was we needed to secure the point difference, and then if we can, secure the bonus point, and all the lot would be in the bag. So ja, there was quite a lot of calculations to do. And then watching the game from the touchline came the penalty everyone has been debating on. Some people have taken flak for that, but what they don’t remember also is there was 10 minutes left. If you watch any Super Rugby match, you secure the game first. The penalty was in front of the posts. We needed the point difference so with that penalty, Kenya had to literally score twice to get within the point difference range. We still felt we had enough time for another play. That’s how I see it. I mean, I was there with Liam, I was the water-boy. And I will never forget that. We just started doing bizarre things when Kenya kicked the ball back to us. And from the kick-off we kicked the ball out of our forwards back to them. And we defended the last 10 minutes on our line. So ja, it was a very peculiar game.”

Not sealing automatic qualification to their first Rugby World Cup since 1991, by a mere bonus point, was a particularly hard pill to swallow for the Zimbabweans, but still there was another route to England — if Namibia didn’t beat hosts Madagascar by more than 79 points in the final game of the qualifiers.

“I remember coming off the field after the Kenya game and it was very nerve-wrecking,” recalls Ferreira.

“The Namibia guys, who were playing Madagascar next, just walked past. They had just finished warming up and they were going to the changing-room. And they were saying to each other in Afrikaans, ‘come on boys, yes boys, we can still do this, Zim didn’t get a bonus point.’”

“And ja, we then went and sat in the stands and Madagascar had to defend 79 points and we thought maybe they’ve got it. Jeez, those Namibians were just so fired up and they pummelled them by 90 points. So ja, that was hard and I will never forget that. They (Namibia) were there in front of us with that IRB qualification sign, spraying champagne and celebrating. In fact, drops of champagne were hitting us and we were sitting there just absolutely gutted. The feeling had set in when they (Namibia) came out of the corner to warm up and I thought ja, these okes, they have enough quality to do this. And so most of the Madagascar match we couldn’t watch. We went into the stadium car-park and could just see the scoreboard through the stands. And we just watched the scoreboard go up and up and up. And ja, that was definitely one of the darkest days of my life. Because the World Cup was right there on our finger tips. To lose the World Cup on point difference, yooh, there is nothing worse than that.”

With the 2015 World Cup fixtures already released well before the African qualifiers, there had been excitement in the Zimbabwe camp around the prospect of facing the world’s best rugby team in the Southern African country’s first World Cup game in 26 years.

“To play against the All Blacks, that was the dream,” reveals Ferreira.

“To stand in front of that haka and go out and to do what you have planned, it was going to be awesome.”

Now 30, lock forward Ferreira is one of foreign-based players that have been called up for a training camp ahead of the Sables’ 2019 World Cup qualification opener against Morocco in Harare next weekend.

If Zimbabwe qualifies, they will be in Pool B in Japan with the New Zealanders, South Africa, Italy and a play-offs qualifier.

For Ferreira, a repeat of Japan’s shock 34-32 win over the Boks at the 2015 World Cup would be a real possibility if Zimbabwe were to qualify.

“It would mean the world to all the players,” says Ferreira.

“To go and play against the All Blacks and the Springboks! Look, I’m a Springbok fan myself, but looking at what Japan did to the Boks, you are playing against 15 okes with the same heartbeat as yours. All you got to do is have a good game. And then follow that with another good game. You know, I mean, the underdog story is what people are after. I crave going into a game as the underdog and upset the big dog.

“Just imagine facing the haka. Picture it, just imagine it. And they come out, the All Blacks, and they are like ‘it’s only Zimbabwe, ranked whatever’. And all of a sudden you come out and whack them. And you cause the biggest upset of them all. A lot of people don’t want to remember that the All Blacks lost to Rhodesia in 1949, on the global stage. I don’t see why not again, boy, we just got to qualify this time.”

Ferreira has now earned 20 odd caps for Zimbabwe since 2010, and having experienced the highs and lows of international rugby, the opportunity to cap it all with a ticket to Japan next year is a cause of great excitement for the giant second row.

“Let’s make people believe, it’s just the mindset,” says Ferreira.

“Coach Peter de Villiers has brought excitement. He has brought the belief, which disappeared after our 2014 campaign. And he has brought back someone like Dawson, who is massive to Zimrugby. He is massive! That guy, what he has done as a coach and as a player, it’s just unbelievable. And with Peter as a coach, he is the last guy to beat the British and Irish Lions. The All Blacks haven’t even done that. Let’s give credit where it’s due. We have two of the most passionate coaches in both Zimbabwe and South Africa.”

A lot of factors do make the Sables the special and unique national team they are, and all of these will play a big role in the quest for Japan 2019. One of them is the camaraderie bond in the team across cultures and backgrounds.

As much as Ferreira was keen to speak of himself, he also reserved special mention for the veteran 35-year-old utility forward Fortune Chipendo, a man who has come out of modest upbringing in Mabvuku to become a multiple-capped Zimbabwe international, one of the most respected Sables of our time.

“If there is a guy who deserve much more credit than he has been given, not even close enough, in my opinion, is Fortune,” says Ferreira.

“Fortune, I think, has some 70 plus Test caps. He has been around. That guy has seen a lot and we can learn so much from him. I learn something every time I chat to him. He is a wise old mudhara. He is as blessing to have in every camp. If you got trouble, you turn to that guy. He always has a wise word, he has been there, he has done that. Fortune has won the Africa Cup, and it’s only the three of us in this side, myself, Denford (Mutamangira) and Fortune. T-Mak (Tichafara Makwanya) would be the other one, but I’m not sure if he’s part of this squad. All the rest are newcomers. But Fortune, he has been all over the world with the Sables and with sevens. So with a guy like him, it’s lekker.”

The Sables squad preparing for the Morocco tie next week is a good blend of experience and youth, and Ferreira also has a huge amount of hope in some of the young players in the set-up.

“As far as young players are concerned, I’m really excited,” says Ferreira.

“I saw them as schoolboys. When you think of Brendon Mandivenga, that guy was a freak, absolute freak of nature at Peterhouse. He used to curve lines. Now he is in the Sables. Connor Pritchard, you know, I coached him at Under-14, and Under-17. Just to watch that guy grow is awesome. You know, he didn’t make any Craven Week or Grant Khomo Week sides. I was a selector. All the other selectors said he was too small, not what they we are looking for. Only when he was in Upper Six did he make the (Zimbabwe) Under-20 side and he was the captain, and he took on the world. His time is now with the Sables. Don’t leave the Mudariki brothers, Hilton and Farai. Those guys are seriously talented. It’s probably unfair to single out a couple of young players in this team, but those four, that’s where you build your team around: a tight-head prop, a scrumhalf, a flanker and someone in the backline to mix with the older heads like LT (Lenience Tambwera) and others. Zim is in good hands.”

A lock, Ferreira’s will be very important this campaign in a department Zimbabwe is often short of size and power, but then a notion the experienced Sables enforcer shrugs off.

“I think it’s a myth, this whole size thing in the second row,” says Ferreira, now playing his club rugby in Cape Town after few seasons with Aparejadores Rugby Club in Spain.

“We were at camp at Falcon, and we had some massive okes, man, we got massive okes! Size matters, but trust me, we got some nice big okes. There were about six locks at the camp, I must emphasise. All we have to do is to force ourselves to buy into what the coaches say.

“Your backline is not going to do anything if they are on the backfoot all the time. It’s your forwards that put them on the front foot, it’s the forwards that buy them the extra second of space.”

From a rugged Bulawayo Afrikaans family, Ferreira’s family roots runs deep in rugby.

His late father Kobus Ferreira, whom he describes as “a passionate Zimbo”, was called up three different occasions by the great Rhodesia and Springboks coach Ian McIntosh, but was never capped.

And then he has played for Zimbabwe alongside his young brother Schalk Ferreira, also a lock.

Ferreira speaks of a both sad-and-happy story in 2012 when the Sables won the Africa Cup in Tunisia, where he played in the final despite receiving the news of his father’s death back home in Zimbabwe.

“My dad had to go for knee operation but he dropped me at the airport in Bulawayo,” he says.

“That was the last time I saw him. We played the first game against Tunisia. We thoroughly beat them, we gave them a good spanking. Now it was the final. Uganda had beaten Kenya so we met them in the final. On that day my dad had a successful operation. Mom had seen him. But in the early hours next morning he had a heart attack and he passed away. We were due to play on Friday. I told Dawson and I looked at the team, my brothers, and jeez that was amazing. They really looked after me. I remember Losson Motongwiza, who was the team manager, wanted to send me home. I said ‘Lossy, my man, no ways in hell I’m traveling three hours by bus to the airport, then wait long ass hours to fly to Zim on my own after what has happened. I’m playing in this game. My old man would have wanted me to play and win the cup for Zimbabwe and that’s what I’m gonna do’. I stayed for the game and Dawsie allowed us to wear black arm-bands in honour of my dad. There was no dry eye in the changing-room. Yooh, I was looking at my left and my right, and my teammates had tears in their eyes. Dawson says that incident transformed me into a completely different player.”

It could be such personal experiences, too, that can transform the entire Sables into a World Cup-bound team.