IT is a personally enriching experience, getting to know and interacting with the several unsung heroes litter on Zimbabwe’s sports landscape.
By Enock Muchinjo
Some of these selfless lads and ladies, men and women have made the most of it to financially transform themselves, while others still lead the modest lives of old, if not even more impoverished by Zimbabwe’s chronic economic hardships.
It is truly heart-rending that after decades of toil and self-sacrifice, some seeing their former apprentices become globally-recognised stars, a lot of these extraordinary individuals still travel on foot or catch public transport to the training ground — their biggest reward and satisfaction being grooming the next national team player, perhaps the next world-renowned superstar.
Some of these unsung heroes, sadly, are no longer with us — like Joey Muwadzuri and Taya Chakarisa. So when Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira reached his 100-Test milestone last week, the first black African to do so in the colours of South Africa and only the sixth Springbok overall to achieve the feat, many in Zimbabwe would have imagined where Muwadzuri would have been watching the historic moment from, and how he would be feeling.
Muwadzuri, the man credited as Mtawarira’s biggest influence during the star Springbok prop’s early days at Churchill Boys High School in Harare, died in 2010 after a short illness — a year-and-half after his protégée made his Test debut against Wales.
Perhaps he would have been among the privileged thousands inside Free State Stadium in Bloemfontein last week who witnessed the Boks’ series-clinching 23-12 win over England.
Wherever he would have been, a passionate man he was, Muwadzuri’s heart would have swelled with pride and he would have had a smile of satisfaction, as wide as his broad shoulders. “Joey was a visionary coach who believed in young players,” development stalwart and former Zimbabwe Rugby Union (ZRU) chief executive Blessing Chiutare tells the IndependentSport this week.
“When he was coaching at Churchill, my old school, he used to call me time and again to pep talk the boys, and Beast was one. He had gone to Victoria High and Marlborough High in his school days, but he had an undying love for Churchill. Those days, Beast played sevens rugby too, that was after we formed the Cats & Dogs Academy (including Churchill and Prince Edward players) to play in the senior sevens league against clubs. Joey used to talk a lot about Beast, the great potential he possessed.”
A religious man who did some pastoral work at church, Muwadzuri’s influence on that front probably also rubbed off on the young Mtawarira, whose deep faith has been part and parcel of his illustrious rugby career.
Another important person in the early days of Mtawarira to have passed on was ex-Churchill coach Chakarisa, who was as passionate about rugby as he was about trees. He died in 2016, a big man whose enormous frame made him conspicuous at rugby grounds throughout the country.
Asking people if they ever imagined, in their wildest dreams, that the powerfully-built schoolboy they knew those days would clock 100 caps at the highest level of rugby — in one of the most physically demanding sports on the planet — draws an initial noncommittal response.
But it is totally understandable. No one could have ever imagined.
“Look, 100 caps in any sport is no joke, to do so in rugby is astonishing,” says Owen Chiutare, Blessing’s young brother, who was the captain when Mtawarira broke into the Churchill first team in 2001.
“He was rough around the edges, but keen to learn. You could tell he was gonna make it to the next level, but being a young kid at Churchill, it is hard to tell what the next level is. Personality-wise, he was humble, willing to go the extra mile.
“What I will always remember about him is the attitude. I remember him almost passing out during a fitness session just to prove to the team he was good enough to play first team. But then he had nothing to prove and we all knew he could do it. I first knew Beast in 1998 when he first came into hostel as a form one. He was a big guy compared to all the other guys in his stream. Then when he made it into the Bulldogs (Churchill’s first team), my role was to break him in because back then it was a huge jump from Under-16s to first team. He was an eighth-man, but so was I. So we tried to convert him to be a flanker.” Chiutare said.
“It doesn’t really surprise me that he got so many Test caps. I think that shock hit me first when I saw him play in the front row. I played rugby with his older brother, who was also talented, which told me he came from a good rugby family. When I first saw him wearing the green-and-gold, it was one of the best feelings ever as a Churchill boy. I’ve keenly followed his career and I’m absolutely happy for him. He has proved to a lot of people that hard work pays off and if you dare to dream, it might just come through.”
As tributes poured in before and after the historic Test last weekend, Zimbabwe’s first black captain, Kennedy Tsimba, also joined in the chorus of accolades — tipping Mtawarira to become the next black African to be inducted into World Rugby Hall of Fame after himself, his older brother Richard Tsimba and the late famed South African president Nelson Mandela.
“It’s an incredible achievement, especially in modern-day rugby, where very few players are reaching 50 caps as is,” the Free State Cheetahs legend, who pioneered the trend of top-class black Zimbabwean rugby players in South Africa, tells this paper. “I’m extremely proud of him. I have no doubt he will be joining us in the World Rugby Hall of Fame.”
An elite athlete of Mtawarira’s stature is a product of different stages, and different people. One of these men is Reg Querl, another long unheralded hero of Zimbabwean rugby. These days Querl works from a comfortable office in the serene environment of Falcon College, deep in the bushes of Matabeleland, as headmaster of one of Zimbabwe’s most prestigious private schools. At the end of 2002, Querl afforded Mtawarira a major stepping stone when he successfully recruited him from Churchill on a scholarship at Peterhouse College, another top private school — where the veteran educationist was the sports administrator.
For many Zimbabweans, there are plenty of reasons to be proud of Mtawarira.