One big happy family

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HOSTS England are sliding towards defeat to Pakistan in the Cricket World Cup, and the entire Zimbabwe Rugby Academy squad is gathered around the TV of their luxurious guest house’s dining room in a quiet Cape Town suburb, their home for the past five weeks.

ENOCK MUCHINJO IN CAPE TOWN

After another hard day’s work down at the training ground and then a hearty dinner, almost everybody is hooked onto the cricket, but probably none more so than Biselele Tshamala and Ngoni Chibuwe — both keen and talented cricketers in their school days.

Support for the two teams is evenly split between the Zimbabwean squad, generating some real excitement around the dining table as the game appears to swing this and that way.

Set a winning target of 349 by Pakistan, England’s spirited chase crumbles as the Asians claim the big wicket of centurion Jos Buttler to leave the pre-tournament favourites staring down defeat in their second match of the tournament.

Damn! How was he out?,” Zimbabwe’s coach Brendan Dawson, who has been vocally supporting England but just missed Buttler’s dismissal while chatting with his assistant Tonderai Chavhanga, turns to Tshamala to ask.

“Caught at short third man,” replies Tshamala, quick as a flash.

Twenty-eight-year-old Tshamala — whose parents hail from the Democratic Republic of Congo — is one of the most remarkable members of the Zimbabwe squad due to a unique background shaped at family and societal level.

In a squad rich in cultural diversity, Tshamala is one able to converse well within the group in English, Ndebele and Shona — depending on who he is talking to.

And that’s not all. Hwange-born Tshamala can also speak seven more vernaculars to bring his linguistic prowess tally to 10 languages.

“In addition to my mother language Tshiluba — which is spoken in Congo — I also speak Nambiya, Tonga, Kalanga, Swahili and then I have lived in Jo’burg so I also now speak Zulu and Xhosa well,” Tshamala tells IndependentSport.

The camaraderie within the Zimbabwean squad here comes out clear when you spend even half a day with the group.

Leading into their last game on Saturday against Eastern Province, the Zimbabweans have lost all first five games of their debut SuperSport Rugby Challenge season.

But it has not dampened the mood in camp, just good spirits all round.

“It’s a good experience,” remarks Tshamala. “We have met people you’ve not met before. But as time has gone, we’ve known each other well and got on like a house on fire. We are now a family. It’s been good. The wonderful set-up has made it possible.”

Tshamala grew up around a variety of sporting disciplines in Hwange. They included football, which he was also good at and enjoyed as much as his cricket.

He attended Thomas Coulter Primary School in the small mining town, and then became a sportsman of note at Plumtree High School where he was a schoolyard hero for most of his time there.

“I learnt all my sport in Hwange, which is incredible for a small place,” he says. “My house is across a cricket field, a soccer field, a rugby field, tennis courts. So I could never escape sport growing up in Hwange.”

The squad in Cape Town is pretty young. At 28, Tshamala — with some 12 Test caps for Zimbabwe — is one of the oldest.

The flanker will be one of the most experienced men when the Sables try to qualify for the 2023 World Cup.

“I think the biggest goal was 2019, it didn’t go according to plan,” he says. “It (SuperSport Challenge) couldn’t have come at a better time to prepare for 2023. That’s the next biggest goal. We have to build towards that.”

Players in the squad have come from different places: from home in Zimbabwe, South Africa and abroad.

One of those to arrive from overseas is young eighthman Aiden Burnett, who joined the side in April fresh from winning the British universities title with Hartpury University on the hallowed turf of Twickenham.

For the 21-year-old from Harare, a destructive ball-carrier who is also strong on the ground, the brand of rugby in South Africa has been a bit of a surprise.

“It’s more physical than I expected,” says Burnett. “In the UK it’s more skill-based than physical. I have had to adjust to the physicality.”

Burnett had shared the number 8 jersey with the experienced Njabulo Ndlovu in a rotational system employed by the Zimbabweans each week during the tournament.

“Njabs has taught me a lot,” Burnett says.

“Besides playing in the same position, I also look up to him as one of the team’s leaders. I’ve learnt a lot from Njabs. I think he’s also learnt from me because I play in the UK and he plays here in South Africa. It’s different rugby, like I said.”

The former youth international has also been having good fun with the lads away from the rugby.

“We really get along well as a group, good vibes,” he says. “We have been here for five to six weeks, but it seems like we have been here for a week. There are good laughs in the squad and we have been having a great time together.”

Coming from the Romanian top-flight league for one game before getting injured is Mutare-born Chibuwe, the powerfully-built centre who is highly-rated by all coaches he has played under.

Before Romania, 24-year-old Chibuwe also played in Spain.

“It’s humbling, I can’t believe I could reach places due to rugby,” Chibuwe says.

Chibuwe won a sports scholarship from Mutare Boys High School to the private Hillcrest College, both in his hometown, after his prodigious talents became too good to ignore.

Not that many purebreds Mutareans have played international rugby for Zimbabwe in recent years — Old Hararians and Sables legend Prayer Chitenderu stands out in modern times when it comes to that — so making the people of Mutare proud is something Chibuwe holds dear.

“To you, it might seem like you are doing something small, but to them it’s huge,” Chibuwe says. “I’m really humbled by the love and support from Mutare.”

Chibuwe was also a gifted cricketer in his high school days, in fact, probably the game he felt at ease with those days.

He captained a Manicaland Mountaineers Under-18 side that had such talented cricketers as Daniel Moolman and Campbell Saul, and at that stage cricket appeared to be winning the battle of his two favourite sports.
“Whenever I am in Mutare I go and coach cricket,” Chibuwe says. “But the state of the game there is so worrying. I spoke to a kid who says they haven’t played a game in three years. It’s so painful, man. I love cricket, I hope they can resuscitate the game down there.”

Proclaiming an undying love for cricket he may, but choosing rugby as his career was not the hardest decision Chibuwe has had to make.

“To be honest, the transition was because of the vibe in rugby, the brotherhood, fighting together,” explains Chibuwe, who had a stint with the Sharks Academy in Durban after school.

“Cricket didn’t have a lot of offers for me. Our country doesn’t have a bridge between high school cricket and senior cricket.”

His SuperSport Challenge debut against Boland last week will be his first and last after sustaining an ankle injury, but Chibuwe has easily fitted into the group and speaks highly of the talent within the set-up.

“The quality is amazing, phenomenon,” he says. “It’s now a new era for Zimrugby. My prayer is to have more of these and also end-of-year tours because I understand there is not going to be the Africa Cup this year. There are a lot of fantastic players. Cleopas (Kundiona) just for example. He is 20, 21 and he is a big bloke. And he is going to Sharks soon. Jerry Jaravaza too, that laaitie is talent. I can only imagine what these guys will be in five years. Look at Ireland in Sevens, for them to finally become a core member, they have done their homework. For us, by the time our young guys mature, we are going to have something dangerous.”

Coach Brendan Dawson and his assistant Tonderai Chavhanga, the former Springbok wing, are shoo-in for the future of the Zimbabwe rugby team according to Chibuwe.

“I have heard of some blame games,” he says. “You can’t expect results overnight. It’s about doing things right, going through the right processes. In Dawson you have a very passionate man. He’s an ex-Sable, a man who loves his country. Tonde played at the highest level. Zimrugby, I believe, is in good hands.”

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