BY Enock Muchinjo
A TEENAGER making his Test debut for one of the leading nations these days will already be exposed to the rigours of world rugby’s best competitions — Super Rugby, English Premiership, French Top 14, Pro 14.
For a Zimbabwean, it is quite the other way round.
An international debut at the age of 19, in an important World Cup qualifier, is a come-get-me statement, a ladder and something to put on a CV for clubs and franchises across the world to consider.
This is the story of hugely talented Cleopas Kundiona Jr, who only turned 20 on December 15 last year, few months after adding his name to an exclusive list of players to be capped by Zimbabwe in their teens.
Of all new players fielded by Zimbabwe’s former Springbok coach Peter de Villiers in the Africa Cup last season, Kundiona was the youngest, but he has emerged as one of the success stories of an otherwise disappointing year in which the ticket to the World Cup slipped away once again.
There will be more World Cup opportunities, though, for young players like the prop Kundiona and also, it is hard not to see scouts across the globe making enquiries over this absolute giant of a rugby player.
A 120kg in weight for a tight-head, anybody’s first impression would be “wow, strong scrummager!” But for a big man, Kundiona is also quite mobile around the park, a strong ball-carrier and team player with impressive work ethic.
“On attack, I like playing off 10 (fly-half), running lines and offloading like a centre,” says Kundiona. “But I can also play forward hard-gains rugby. Besides the duties of strumming hard and lifting in line-outs, I enjoy defence, trying to steal ball and put in some hits like a flank.”
This is sweet news to the ears of fans of Johannesburg-based Raiders Rugby Club, who have signed the young Zimbabwean ahead of the new season on a one-year deal.
Raiders, who play in the Golden Lions Premier League, have brought Kundiona and compatriot Kudakwashe Nyakufaringwa to the club to reinforce their forwards pack following a disappointing 2018 season in which failure to reach at least the semi-finals of the Gold Cup — South Africa’s premier inter-club competition—was deemed a low point by the club’s standards.
Kundiona is as an age where — playing in the top-flight division of a provincial league — he will have first-class teams looking at him with keen interest.
In his case, the Golden Lions and the Super Rugby franchise, Lions, are the closest.
The move by Kundiona and 25-year-old lock Nyakufaringwa to South Africa was facilitated by Athletes Sphere Management (ASM), whose founding president Gerald Sibanda has an extensive sporting network worldwide.
Sibanda, a former Zimbabwe international, believes his agency has set up the two Sables newcomers for greater heights, particularly showering Kundiona with glowing praise and tipping him for bigger career moves in the fairly near future.
“Cleopas is the next big star to grace world rugby,” Sibanda says. “He will be a top rugby ambassador amongst front-rowers like what (ex-Springbok) Brian Mujati has done for Zimbabwe. I see so many similarities in their attributes. My challenge to him is to raise his hand up for a call-up with the Lions, but first he must do well for Raiders in the league and repay their faith in investing in his talents.”
Kundiona made his two Sables appearances last year off the bench against Kenya and Uganda, doing well enough in those games to convince onlookers.
He was hugely grateful for the opportunity given to him by de Villiers who, despite some selection headaches in other positions, seemed spoilt for choice with his front-row resources.
“He (de Villiers) is a great man, that needs no mentioning,” says Kundiona of the South African. “He gave me a new perspective on life and the game of rugby.”
The other young tight-head in the Sables mix is Farai Mudariki, the team’s first choice whenever available.
Four years older than Kundiona, Mudariki has laid down the marker by signing a full season’s contract with English Premiership side Worcester Warriors.
And Kundiona views his Sables contest with Mudariki as healthy competition.
“Having someone as good as that to compete with only makes you want to do better,” Kundiona says. “Farai is very humble, always willing to help me with some tips on line-out and scrums. I thank him and wish him more success.”
Despite the indifferent results in his debut international season with Zimbabwe, only beating Uganda out of five Tests, Kundiona — who is a big fan of Irish superstar prop Tadhg Furlong — thoroughly enjoyed being part of the Sables squad.
“God was at work there,” he says. “It was a real blessing and honour being in the set-up. Every moment was memorable. We became brothers on and off the field.”
By his own admission, rugby did not come naturally to Kundiona. He was schooled first at Lendy Park primary school in Marondera, his home town, and did not record any notable achievements in sport.
It was the choice of Falcon College for senior school that proved the turning point for him, going to the Craven Week twice with Zimbabwe Schools in 2015 and 2016.
“Falcon is where I learnt and developed my craft,” Kundiona says. “I’m eternally grateful for that. Rugby didn’t come naturally for me. There were lots of ups and downs. I was very lucky to have lots of inspirational characters, the list will be too long if I was to name them.”
Other recent Falcon alumni to feature for Zimbabwe last season were the outstanding flank Connor Pritchard and rangy winger Matthew McNab, who added an air of familiarity to the Sables dressing room.
“It was a blast,” Kundiona says. “They are good players and off the field they know how to have fun.”
Having good fun but, above all, a strong work ethic, humility and faith in God are key principles Kundiona says were instilled in him by his upbringing.
His father, who he is named after, is a veteran educationist, politician and, most recently, a minister of religion.
“I did get my hard work, tenacity and grit from my dad,” he says. “From my mom, she taught me to always be humble.”
They can look forward to all these qualities at Bill Jardine Stadium this season.