IT REALLY does not feel like a World Cup, to be quite frank.
By Enock Muchinjo
In New Zealand and South Africa, torchbearers of rugby on the planet, the rather underwhelming pre-tournament mood tells the story.
The New Zealanders go into the 2018 Rugby World Cup Sevens in the US city of San Francisco as defending champions and two-time co-record champions of the 25-year-old competition.
South Africa, the Kiwis’ greatest rivals in this sport, also arrived in San Francisco this week with an admirable reputation—as the highest seeded team in the tournament, and just under two months after being crowned 2017-18 HSBC Sevens Series champions at the London leg early June.
Yet, even as the two global giants open their Sevens World Cup campaigns tomorrow evening—when you flicked through the sports pages of newspapers, or listened to rugby conversations during the course of the week—you would have found the Super Rugby quarter-final showdown tomorrow morning between the Crusaders and the Sharks to be more worthy of the average fan’s time.
Given the minimum global interest, World Rugby probably had a strong case when the governing body of the sport toyed around with the idea of dropping the Rugby World Cup Sevens following the introduction of Sevens into the Olympics.
Moreover, the HSBC World Sevens Series—played by national teams across 10 tournaments around the world over a six-month season—carries more prestige and is without doubt the game’s premier competition in the shorter format.
It then makes a mockery of the sport that a tournament carrying the sacred “World Cup” tag should be of lower status.
If the Sevens World Cup is to stay beyond San Francisco 2018, perhaps a leaf needs to be taken out of cricket, which has warmly embraced such glamorous tournaments as the Indian Premier League (IPL) and the Big Bash—yet still preserving the status of the World Twenty20 as the pinnacle event of the sport.
But this would require sweeping reforms in the game, like, for instance, doing away with the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series and promoting IPL and Big Bash-styled tournaments. Or, to keep it within the rugby template, introduce Sevens’ own version of Super Rugby or the European Rugby Champions Cup.
With no other major international competition around, this will definitely restore some prestige in the Sevens World Cup as well as make the Olympics competition grow in stature following its subdued debut in Rio de Janeiro two years ago.
But it depends on whether rugby is ready for a revolution of that sort—from a commercial, spectator and organisational point of view.
In the meanwhile, with this status quo, what does the Sevens World Cup mean to a team like Zimbabwe, who open their World Cup against Wales tonight?
In the wake of the hugely disappointing quest for the 2019 Fifteens World Cup, rugby’s biggest stage, it should mean a great deal for the game here. It is only to a certain extent, though. There is no escaping the fact that Sevens rugby and its World Cup really do not capture the imagination of the global audience.
While Zimbabwe has not been to the main World Cup for nearly three decades, the Sevens team has missed only two of the previous six Sevens World Cups: the inaugural event in 1993 and the 2005 edition.
“That record shows we can always go to the Sevens World Cup, so we should stop celebrating qualifying,” says Cleopas Makotose, a key member of the Zimbabwe team that beat Ireland to claim the bowls medal at the 2009 World Cup.
“We should look to be competitive against the top sides now.”
But Makotose, a former Sables captain and a Zimbabwe Sevens journeyman in his prime, does not feel the team in San Francisco is adequately equipped to leave a mark on the tournament.
“It’s a very talented team we’ve taken to the United States, and I wish them all the best in the World Cup. But I’m worried because there is no continuity. There is no sense of direction. There is no structure and clarity of what we are trying to achieve. We need to take it to the next level. It’s just like ‘it’s a World Cup, let’s go have a party’. What do we want to achieve from this World Cup? That’s the question we should be answering.”
Makotose’s remarks stems from his own experience, in which the class of 2009, as gifted a side as they will ever be in Zimbabwe, was still not able to achieve core team status on the World Rugby Sevens circuit.
“Our team of 2009, that’s when we should have been taken to the next level. We had guys who had played together from high school, through club rugby and (Zimbabwe) Under-21s. Myself, Fortune
(Chipendu), Gerald (Sibanda), Willis (Magasa) and Jacques (Leitao). A guy like Wes (Mbanje) had been in the Sevens set-up for a long time before us. When we played, you could see who was there and know how you were supposed to play. If you think that 2009 was a fluke, look at how that group later on achieved in fifteens with the Sables, winning the Africa Cup and those Victoria Cups. But for us to achieve more, all we needed was to be taken to the next level.”
Moving to the next level requires a deliberate structure, from bottom to top, which is conspicuously missing in Zimrugby nowadays.
“This is where you see the importance of the position of director of rugby,” says Makotose. “This is the guy who designs the structure. If you see the way it is now, every coach is just coaching the way they feel like. I feel for the players, I feel for the coaches.
They are doing their best to get results. But you need to work within a structure. You can blame the economy, but you don’t need money to build a structure.”
With that being said, for the Zimbabwean players in the US, there will be no shortage of motivation nonetheless.
“As a former player, I’m more than excited to see this next generation of Cheetahs evolve on the big stage,” says Gerald Sibanda, another member of the 2009 side and the Zimbabwe team’s assistant manager in San Francisco.
“I expect big performances from all our seasoned campaigners and inspirational performances from the debutants….a great performance at a World Cup is career-changing and opens up bigger opportunities. I was fortunate to play in 2009, top-scored (for Zimbabwe) and excelled with my country and found new career opportunities. This is the hour for new Zimbabwe stars to be born.”
Boyd Rouse (co-captain), Stephan Hunduza (co-captain), Biselele Tshamala, Connor Pritchard, Tafadzwa Chitokwindo,
Tarisai Mugariri, Shayne Makombe, Ngoni Chibuwe, Nelson Madida, Kuda Chiwanza, Riaan O’Neill, Shingi Hlanguyo.