IT might be worlds apart in the hierarchy of international rugby, but Peter de Villiers would not be feeling any different right now than he felt nine years ago ahead of the crucial Test series with the British and Irish Lions in South Africa.
By Enock Muchinjo
Just like in 2009, relentless pressure is on de Villiers tomorrow in an assignment that will not only shape his career trajectory but also put his sense of judgement, character and coaching style under even closer scrutiny.
Nine years ago, before the first Test against the Lions, de Villiers had come under heavy criticism for his rather controversial coaching methods. He would however have the last laugh, leading South Africa to a memorable series win over the British and Irish Lions, the last Springbok coach to achieve that feat.
And now in his second job as coach of a national side, de Villiers finds himself almost at breaking-point again, taking a lot of flak from all quarters for Zimbabwe’s disappointing 23-23 draw with Morocco a fortnight ago in the Sables’ first shot at 2019 World Cup qualification.
Selection, a major cause of much of the criticism against de Villiers two weeks ago, has not changed significantly for Zimbabwe’s second Africa Gold Cup tie against Kenya in Nairobi tomorrow — a match whose outcome will either breathe new life into the Sables’ World Cup qualifying campaign or tell us to forget about going to Japan next year.
Old habits die hard. De Villiers — dogmatic as ever — has stuck to his guns, only ringing a few forced changes to his starting line-up for tomorrow.
There has been talk this week that experienced eighth-man Njabulo Ndlovu, quite justifiably unamused by not being an integral part of de Villiers’ plans, opted out of the Nairobi trip alongside flanker Biselele Tshamala and centre Ngoni Chibuwe.
They instead stayed behind and joined the training camp of the World Cup Sevens-bound Cheetahs.
There is also no clarity over the unavailability of vice-captain Hilton Mudariki, who had gotten into the groove as Zimbabwe’s first-choice scrumhalf in the past two years.
Already, the enterprising and hard-working young Sables team manager Kisset Chirengende has left his role over unspecified personal reasons.
But all focus tomorrow will be on de Villiers, who is under real pressure to orchestrate an immediate turnaround and, with another away fixture to Tunisia coming straight after this one, the former Bok coach knows the battle of Nairobi will either make or break him.
Two changes, meanwhile, have been made to the Sables starting line-up, with Test debutant Ernest Mudzengerere replacing Mudariki in the number 9 shirt.
South Africa-born Johan Stander takes his place on debut at lock, a position he would have shared with his young brother in a unique siblings second-row pairing. But the brother, Pumas enforcer Jannie Stander, has not been cleared by World Rugby in time to play for Zimbabwe, due to Junior Springbok caps earned at the 2013 World Rugby Under-20 Championship.
Tafadzwa Mhende and Lucky Sithole—the veteran utility back and flanker respectively—are back in the Sables fold and start off the bench.
Winger Dylan Baptista could also make his debut as a substitute while the gifted 20-year-old half-back Jerry Jaravaza will be cover for both Mudzengerere and flyhalf Lenience Tambwera. Prop Cleopas Kundiona is the other uncapped player on the bench.
Starting line-up: 15. Shingi Katsvere, 14. Takudzwa Kumadiro, 13. Kudzai Mashawi, 12. Brandon Mandivenga, 11. Matthew McNab, 10. Lenience Tambwera, 9. Ernest Mudzengerere, 8. Tapfuma Parirenyatwa, 7. Connor Pritchard, 6. Takudzwa Mandiwadza, 5. Fortune Chipendu, 4. Johan Stander, 3. Farai Mudariki, 2. David Makanda, 1. Denford Mutamangira (captain).
Replacements: 16. Matthew Mandioma, 17. Cleopas Kundiona, 18. Lawrence Cleminson, 19. Kudakwashe Nyakufaringwa, 20. Brian Nyaude, 21. Jerry Jaravaza, 22. Ziyanda Khupe, 23. Dylan Baptista, 24. Tafadzwa Mhende, 25. Lucky Sithole.