AS grim as the realisation is that Zimbabwe will not be going to the Rugby World Cup next year, the reality seems to have now sunk in accompanied by inevitable and resigned of acceptance — logically the only way forward for the game in this country.
By Enock Muchinjo
After much shockwave across the fraternity, finger-pointing and disappointment, it really felt reassuring and soothing to see Zimbabwean rugby looking at peace with itself before and after the 58-28 defeat to Namibia in Bulawayo last Saturday — a vastly improved performance that gives hope for the future of an otherwise very young and talented team.
Very hard lessons have been learnt, a reality check of horrendous and brutal proportions. Thankfully, out of it the signs are there that Zimbabwe can ultimately emerge stronger from the wreckage of its failed attempt to qualify for the nation’s first World Cup in three decades.
That, of course, does not take away from the fact that Zimbabwe has once again missed a glorious opportunity.
Financial boost, expanded fan-base, international recognition and the opportunity to revamp the structures are some of the major gains of a World Cup spot. But there is a huge amount of respect in many for us for the organisational skills of those in charge of the game at the moment — both at the Zimbabwe Rugby Union (ZRU) and the Sables Trust — and their capacity to compensate for World Cup losses, in my view, is unquestionable.
What needs to be done going forward?
National team coach Peter de Villiers’ contracts runs out end of next year. The former Springbok coach has made his mistakes and justifiably so he has drawn sharp criticism in the circles, not least in this publication. The buck always stops with the coach.
He seemed to come here with a bit of condescending attitude in which he overestimated some of our players, and underestimated the growing strength of African rugby. But de Villiers’ failures, more than anything really, have been to do with decision-making, which — to be fair to the man — stems from prior lack of knowledge of the Zimbabwean rugby culture. In light of this — when rational thinking has replaced emotions, when stock has been taken — it is only sensible for everyone involved to accept collective responsibility.
The 2019 World Cup was a bar too high, with hindsight, even more so when you analyse in-depth the all-round strengths of the Namibians — a team that has been a permanent fixture at the World Cup since 1999 — and the intensity of their preparations, as well as the structured game they possess.
Beyond this, de Villiers can truly turn out to be the “Messiah” Zimrugby needs moving forward. It is in the best interest of continuity and rugby in this country that he stays in the job for much longer to see off what he has started, a project he is evidently passionate about.
De Villiers has clearly struck a chord with the players. He has given them the freedom to express themselves and, with each passing game, the younger players, in particular, have been responding to his tactics enthusiastically — never more evident than against Namibia on Saturday.
Indeed, there are lots of positives to be taken from the disappointing campaign, Saturday’s game a case in point.
Just look at a player like Brandon Mandivenga. Thrown into the deep end at flyhalf by force of circumstance — in the biggest game of his fledgling international career — in only his fourth Test appearance, the former Peterhouse College maestro admirably showed great composure under immense pressure.
Rough edges of his game, like kicking for post, can be rectified if he will be allowed to stay in that position on first-choice basis.
And given how he made solid territory gains the whole afternoon on Saturday and gave the team good front-foot ball, at 24 Mandivenga can develop into a great number 10 for Zimbabwe and at long last solve the country’s playmaking woes for years to come. That exuberance of youth is probably the biggest thing we can salvage from this campaign.
Again, take a look at someone like flank Connor Pritchard — who is just pure class.
The country’s Under-20 captain only two years ago — Pritchard’s freakish loose-forward strength, tackling rate, outstanding breakdown work and phenomenal ball-carrying ability already reminds me of some of my all-time favourites in that position: Jacques Leitao, Silethokuhle “Slater” Ndlovu, Prayer Chitenderu, Danisa Mangena, Costa Dinha. Quite clearly the talent is there, which brings me to the second factor in moving forward — administration.
Keeping that group of players together, allowing it to grow in stature as a unit, requires sound administration skills and ingenuity. It leaves the ZRU — which also should take its fair share of blame for the failed 2019 World Cup campaign — with an opportunity to redeem itself here onwards.
The starting point in the process of redemption is the structures of Zimbabwean rugby in its entirety. It is important to note that the bulk of the squad from this year are products of a dysfunctional system, a structure from youth to senior level that used to be the envy of Africa, one that for many years safeguarded Zimbabwe’s standing as a proud rugby nation.
Because he already has some momentum going, de Villiers can be the man to drive that exercise of revamping the structures, if authorities — an idea that was initially toyed with — were to give the South African the extra responsibility of national director of rugby. The relevant question, then, is one that will ultimately determine Zimbabwe’s future in the wake of the 2019 World Cup disappointment: are the people involved prepared to take it on the chin for the sake of an even greater future?
Well, with the quality of people involved — the clear vision and good intentions — we should not totally despair over this unfortunate setback.