By Enock Muchinjo
IT HAS become increasingly hard to ignore a leaked WhatsApp conversation between four leading Zimbabwean rugby personalities after the hard-hitting thread came for even deeper scrutiny this week on various platforms.
In the exchanges, which took place before Zimbabwe’s crucial last Africa Cup match in Uganda last month, the four launched a scathing attack on coach Peter de Villiers, blaming the former Springbok mentor for the Sables’ spectacular failure to qualify for the World Cup in Japan next year.
When the chat was thrown back into debate this week, it brought back into the spotlight a year that started with the real possibility of a first World Cup appearance in more than three decades, but ended in a desperate fight for survival among Africa’s best national rugby teams.
It is the stature of the four group members involved in the chat that gives weight to the sharp-tongued criticism of de Villiers.
Godwin “Jaws” Murambiwa is a well-respected coaching figure in the country, the last Sables coach to defeat the increasingly indomitable African superpower, Namibia.
Costa Dinha is an Africa Cup-winning captain whose merry band of Sables had done admirably well to restore the prestige of Zimbabwean rugby on the continent around 2011-12.
Max Madziva was a pioneering black Zimbabwean player in the early years of the professional era of English rugby, a top-notch loose forward who returned home in the mid-2 000s to briefly captain the country.
The other participant, Losson Mtongwiza, is an experienced administrator and current vice-president of the Zimbabwe Rugby Union (ZRU).
So unreserved in their attack of de Villiers were they that one of the group members suggested that the South African “packed his s**t and f**k off” soon after the Uganda, whether the team won or lost.
The participants have individually acknowledged the chats to be theirs when asked by this newspaper. But they insist it was a private group conversation, whose contents should have remained private.
“I deeply regret the breach in confidentiality and we are actually considering appropriate action against the culprit (who leaked), and we have an idea who he is and his motives. But that said, as private as our views were and on a private WhatsApp group, none of us disown what was said, opinions we are all entitled to,” said one of the group participants.
Further probing reveals that group members had been infuriated by the disclosure by one participant that de Villiers had, in fact, not made World Cup qualification a top priority during his interview for the Sables post early this year.
If true, it probably explains de Villiers’ astonishing reliance on the same team, even when it became clearer with each game that certain players and combinations were not working well and desperately needed to be changed.
It also probably explains why de Villiers was not bothered with Zimbabwe’s pool of foreign-based professional players, some of whom so nearly took the Sables to the World Cup in 2015 — under a part-time local coach without the hefty corporate-sponsored package of the South Africans.
Indeed, de Villiers seemed to confirm his approach with Zimbabwe after the crucial win in Uganda which saved the Sables from relegation, telling the Kwese Sports broadcaster that “winning and losing” was the same, and that he was mainly worried about “processes” and “playing according to plan.”
His demeanour throughout the season, too, tells a story: he never seemed to get moved in the face of defeat.
Can one entirely blame de Villiers, though?
Did he really understood what going to the World Cup at this juncture meant to third-tier Zimbabwe, who have not been to the showpiece since 1991?
Tomorrow morning, an immensely under-pressure South African team go up against the mighty All Blacks, with the Springboks heading into that tie on the back of successive defeats to Argentina and Australia.
The match will be played at Westpac Stadium in Wellington, New Zealand.
Not since de Villiers have the Boks beat New Zealand at home.
It has been nine years.
In recognition of that feat, even some of South Africa’s hardest-hitting publications — which gave de Villiers one hell of a ride during his tenure — this week paid tribute to the last Springbok coach to beat the All Blacks in fortress New Zealand.
The well-respected and conservative Sport24 tracked down the man in Harare ahead of tomorrow’s clash, and published an article under the headline: “Peter de Villiers: SA rugby’s forgotten man and All Black mastermind.”
In the same story, de Villiers also told Sport24 of the Zimbabwe gig: “The sport here (in Zimbabwe) is not professional and these guys have never been exposed to high-performance coaching, but we are getting there, and I think it is happening quicker than we expected.”
Again, it is the kind of tone that let the cat out of the bag for de Villiers.
A tone that seems to say there are more important things to be treasured in a rugby coaching career.
Such as winning two epic Tests in New Zealand in as many years, defeating the British and Irish Lions in a series and clinching the tri-nations.
Certainly not going to the World Cup with Zimbabwe, simply to make up numbers.
To de Villiers, building a team, seeing a project grow under his watch, was probably closer to his heart in Zimbabwe than anything else.
Yet the nation had been told of a much bigger dream.
Which then raises more questions than answers.
If indeed de Villiers told his employers he was not coming here for the World Cup, the guys at the Zimbabwe Rugby Union (ZRU) should explain why then they settled for him yet we had been told that the immediate goal was the World Cup.
They really do not need to explain, though.
In the leaked chat, a key figure at the union admitted to have “f****d up” in giving the job to de Villiers.