TO be the champions of your continent, in any sport, is a monumental feat and news of Zimbabwe’s sweet victory at the Rugby Africa Sevens in Tunisia last weekend — on the same turf the Sables were also crowned kings of Africa in 2012 — was greeted with touching tribute and joy back home.
By Enock Muchinjo
Of course, the bigger sporting codes grab the most attention, and it does not surprise that the Warriors’ epic 2-1 win in the Democratic of Congo on the same weekend, which drew the country closer to a second consecutive Africa Cup of Nations appearance, overshadowed the remarkable success story of Zimbabwe’s national Sevens rugby team, the Cheetahs.
In winning the Rugby Africa Sevens, the Cheetahs not only turned the spotlight on themselves. They also brought back into focus the main national team, the Sables, who endured a torrid campaign in the Africa Gold Cup this past season.
What then does this imply in simple terms? That Zimbabwe is better suited to the shorter version of the game, therefore should start putting its money where the mouth is by investing more in the format where we have the best chance of competing?
With Sevens rugby now an Olympic sport, which means access to funding and high-level training, this could sound a most noble idea — and also there is the opportunity to attain core status of the World Sevens Series which enables the team to play top-quality rugby throughout the year.
Beauty of the Sevens format is that it gives the other nations — outside the global powerhouses — not only the chance to compete almost on equal basis, but also win things.
Fiji is a prime example. They had never won a medal of any colour since debuting at the Olympics way back in 1956.
But the introduction of Sevens rugby at the iconic sporting showpiece, in 2016, saw the Fijians end a 60-year medal drought in style — crowned Olympic champions in Rio two years ago after defeating seasoned Olympians Great Britain in the final.
The difference between Fiji and Zimbabwe, though, is the very reason why we should not see Sevens as a code we should turn to as our top priority.
Fiji is an island nation of just under a million people, and the number game, as well as the players’ physical attributes, make them cut for Sevens rugby.
While they are not always able to compete pound-for-pound with the first-tier nations at Fifteens’ Test level, they certainly are peers with the best in the world at Sevens. Fiji has won two Sevens World Cups. Only New Zealand, with one more, have a better record. Each year in the World Rugby Sevens Series, Fiji is also a force to reckon with.
So, given that Fiji are able to compete and beat anybody in Sevens — but do not consistently fare well against the same opposition at Fifteens — means they at least have a format that gives them identity as a nation, one in which they are world-beaters.
What Zimbabwe should do is to look to increase funding and technical support to Sevens rugby because there is some hope there, and our players have shown time and time again that they can ably utilise the acres of space on a Sevens field.
But thankfully we also do have the numbers, rich heritage and the skills to keep Fifteens as our chief code — and that should remain Zimbabwe’s main focus.
“The basics of the game have to be learnt in Fifteens,” former Zimbabwe skipper Victor Olonga tells IndependentSport.
And Olonga knows better. A top-class Fifteens player at home and abroad in his heyday, going on to captain the Sables, he was sufficiently versatile to excel in both formats — a key member of Zimbabwe’s maiden Rugby World Cup Sevens in 1997.
Sevens,” Olonga adds. “. . . is a place to express the techniques and skills under different and probably less pressure.”
Another ex-Sables captain Cleopas Makotose, while pointing out some of Zimbabwe’s weaker areas in the principal format, still believes the country’s skills and technique on the congested field of Fifteens rugby are still better than most in Africa.
“I don’t believe we are better at the Sevens version only,” Makotose, himself a former international Sevens journeyman, says.
“In Fifteens, we possess a higher skill level to other countries with possession. We still need to improve on our physicality. We don’t enjoy the contact area, especially when we don’t have the ball. We give away a lot of soft tries. With ball in hand we are very good. We don’t struggle to break teams apart because of the skill and speed we possess.”
Bruce Hobson, under whose stewardship Zimbabwean Sevens rugby caught the eye on the world stage mid to late 2000s, labels the version a “developmental platform”, a stance he maintained when he later assumed presidency of the Zimbabwe Rugby Union (ZRU).
“There can be no doubt that aspects of Sevens rugby suite the natural athleticism most of our players possess,” Hobson says. “But we always felt that Sevens training and intense conditioning would be a conduit in developing the more complete player in both Sevens and Fifteens. The international exposure Sevens players had, only helped them develop and this benefitted Zimbabwe rugby in both aspects of the game. Players like Wes Mbanje, Tangai Nemadire and Jacques Leitao, to name a few, excelled in the free-running nature of Sevens where making the ball work by finding space suited their style of play. We do not have a playing pool big enough to have just Sevens players and it is therefore critical that there is a synergy between the coaching and management structures of both modes with an understanding where the benefits of the player complements structures. In this respect, Sevens should be viewed as a developmental platform.”
Hobson’s sentiments were echoed by current ZRU president Aaron Jani: “I still firmly believe we can play both versions of the game and excel, the only requirement is to build and increase the player base to make more players available for both Fifteens and Sevens. We can definitely play both versions of rugby.”