IF working in a bar is part of the rigorous preparation for a Springbok prop from Zimbabwe, like Brian Mujati before, then Kudakwashe Chipunza is certainly on the right track.
By Enock Muchinjo
For the 23-year-old loose-head prop, who dreams of donning the green-and-gold of South Africa one day, rugby wasn’t initially the first source of livelihood.
And like the world-renowned tight-head Mujati — who worked as a nightclub bouncer back home in Zimbabwe before the life-changing breakthrough that brought 12 Springbok Test caps — young Chipunza’s story is almost strikingly similar.
“I remember after my high school at Prince Edward (School), whilst I was waiting for my (examination) results, my parents gave me a bottle-store to run at a property they own in Chitungwiza,” Chipunza says.
While trying to make a success of the liquor store, the youngster retraced his step to rugby and ended up at local club rugby power Harare Sports Club.
“When my results came out, my biology results were missing. So I had to rewrite and, you know, in such situations conflicts in families usually arise and there was so much drama I decided I was going to get a club and play rugby. I had no rugby boots. I had to sell my empty deposit bottles from the bottle store just to get $100 to buy boots. The same day after getting my boots I was in town and had to decide which club I was going to between Old Hararians and Harare Sports Club. I found myself going to (Harare) Sports Club.”
It was at Harare Sports Club that Chipunza came under the wing of respected coach Nsikelelo “Sykes” Sibanda, whose list of protégés includes Mujati himself.
“I remember Sykes fighting for my spot in the first team when most senior players were doubting that a kid straight out of high school could play,” Chipunza says. “After a few games I got picked for the Zim Under-20 squad and played my first game in national colours in a friendly against British Schools’ Barbarians. Sykes would brag about my performance at Zim Under-20 training camps to the other coaches after club games against OH and Old Georgians. Not only was he a coach to me, he became a father figure and friend.”
Chipunza has this season signed for Schotsche-Kloof Walmers Rugby Club in the Western Province Super League after spending two years with Welkom, with whom he won the league title of Griffons in 2017 and 2018.
The big Cape Town move for the stout and strong scrummager has been facilitated by leading Harare-based agency, Athletes Sphere Management (ASM), which offers opportunities to Zimbabwean talent across the sporting world.
Growing up, Chipunza was not a young superstar by any means, which makes his story and Boks ambitions even more compelling.
Going to trials and failing to make the Zimbabwe Schools squad for the Craven Week, and once being told he was not good enough for the national Under-20 side, were some of the early setbacks in Chipunza’s career.
For quite a few years in the formative days, Chipunza did not play rugby because the schools he went to either did not play the game at all, or it was a minor optional sport.
Chipunza’s mother, a doctor, was still studying medicine when he was little, so she sent him to live with his grandmother in rural Wedza, where he did grade one and two at Maruta Primary School. From the rural areas, he returned to the high-density upbringing of Chitungwiza, his hometown, where he completed the remaining five years at Ndangariro Primary School.
Hartzell High School in Manicaland, where he spent a year in form one, had no rugby. Funnily enough, Hartzell — known more for its academic excellence than sporting prowess — was where the seed of rugby was planted in Chipunza.
“A few guys who were in upper streams used to play at the hostel and I would join them,” he says. “That’s when I fell in love with the game.”
It’s been pretty much one step at a time for Chipunza. After just one year at Hartzell he transferred to Mazowe Boys High, again not big on rugby, but at least played the sport at a fairly low level.
“They had rugby for Under-16s and first team only. Their core business was academics so rugby wasn’t something the school took seriously. There was one rugby coach who was also a teacher and was very passionate about the game. He fought tooth and nail to keep the sport alive at the school. He was the one who introduced me to serious rugby. I played Under-16 when I was 14 and started playing first team the following year when I was 15. Generally, we coached each other. It was all about the passion for the game. We used the soccer field for rugby and all you had was one or two rugby balls and a bunch of guys who just wanted to play rugby. I used to hit the gym here and there those days. I remember being the only person with access to the school mini-gym where there wasn’t much weights. I got into trouble with a few teachers for stealing studying time to extend my time in the gym.”
From the rural settings of Wedza to the township buzz of Chitungwiza, from no rugby all at Hartzell to the half-hearted effort of Mazowe — Chipunza would finally end up at a place his talents and passion for rugby belonged: Prince Edward School in Harare.
“That’s when everything changed,” he beams. “I started focusing more on my rugby. I started to manage my nutrition, supplementing my diet. I went to PE for my ‘A’ Levels, I played second team in 2012 and played first team in my final year.”
This was the clearest sign that the powerfully-built young front-rower had the right stuff to go far in rugby. He credits the Prince Edward coach Shaun De Souza, the speedy ex-Zimbabwe international, for teaching him the ins-and-outs of the game.
“He believed in me more than I believed in myself. He basically taught me everything from scratch.”
So equipped with a strong CV from a minor union of SA rugby, Chipunza can now launch his Super Rugby and Springbok dream at SK Walmers RFC in the more competitive environment of Western Province.
ASM president Gerald Sibanda says the agency would not have strongly recommended Chipunza to SK Walmers if they didn’t believe he was the real deal.
“Kuda is a very hard-working professional,” Sibanda says. “Talent without hard work will not go far. Kuda has the work ethic and tenacity. He is a great addition to ASM. My team will do everything to continue taking his career to the next level. I hope he enjoys the adventure in Cape Town with SK Walmers, who are an established outfit in the province.”
The “Baby Beast” is what Chipunza calls himself. It’s neither self-glorification nor comparison gone overboard. It’s, in fact, humble admiration for the great Springbok loose-head Tendai Mtawarira, who Chipunza models his game on.
“I was introduced to Tendai Mtawarira in 2014 and I learnt a lot that time from the ‘Beast’,” says Chipunza. “He taught me about being rugby fit and specialising in one position, especially straight after age-group rugby. That’s when I decided to specialise in being a loose-head prop. All the advice and tips he gave me I still apply them on a daily basis.”
While his role model will most likely enter the twilight of his Test career after the World Cup later this year, Chipunza still has a hell lot to do to start his own, especially if it’s going to be in the colours of the Springboks. But there is living testimony to draw inspiration from.
“Looking at the stories of their journey, both Beast and Brian Mujati, it made me realise that it is possible to attain anything you set your mind on in life.”