SHAYNE Makombe is 11 years younger than the age Victor Matfield was when the Springbok legend played his last World Cup in 2015.
By Enock Muchinjo
But at 27, centre Makombe already feels like a veteran of sorts around younger Zimbabwe teammates who have shown admirable maturity and adaptability during their short international careers so far.
During this interview in the departure lounge of Entebbe International Airport in Uganda, he constantly referred to the exciting Sables newbies as “youngsters”, which indeed they are.
Twenty, 21, 22, and 23-year-olds fitting in nicely with their older teammates — and already contributing to results in a manner belying their young ages.
“If you think of it, what these youngsters are doing is part of the team culture that the coaches are putting in place,” Makombe, of the Sables youth brigade, said.
“The main thing is growth. You could be whatever age you are, but at the end of the day you are a rugby player and you are going to have to compete equally with anybody on a Test rugby field.
“It’s good for the coaches to give these talented youngsters the opportunity and it’s even more pleasing to see the guys settle into the environment and their individuals roles.”
Makombe played his first Test for Zimbabwe this year and scored the opening try for the visitors in the 31-26 Victoria Cup win over Uganda in Kampala last Saturday, a week after renewing his contract with French club Rugby Club Compiègnois for another year.
European-based players bring experience and a level of professionalism to Brendan Dawson’s team, and Makombe looked the part with a solid shift in the Sables’ midfield both defensively and on attack.
“It (playing in France) helps with the decision-making on the field, just playing in different conditions. I feel more composed on the field. Defensively I play better now. It’s one area I now enjoy. I was always kind of an attacking centre. I guess I enjoy both now.
“Playing there has really changed me. It’s a team effort really. What I have taken in is the idea of keeping on learning and being a good student of the game. Also the attitude of a professional. I try to bring everything I’ve learnt to the Zimbabwe team each time I come back home.”
Playing at outside centre for both his French club and country has also helped to sharpen the skills of Makombe, who was known to be a versatile backliner back in the day at Churchill Boys High and Harare Sports Club.
“It has taken me the longest time to settle,” he said. “I was much lighter in weight back then so it was difficult to be effective as a centre. I was always playing everywhere — fullback, wing, centre — but now I’m a specialist outside centre.”
Playing alongside the strongly-built 24-year-old Ngoni Chibuwe in Zimbabwe’s midfield against Uganda brought out the different strengths of the two, who complemented each other remarkably well throughout.
While Makombe was the typical number 13, always looking to join his fellow outside backs in attack, Chibuwe at inside centre enjoyed the physical contact and did frequently set up the quicker men into space.
“I guess I have to give credit to the coaches, Dawsie and (assistant coach Tonderai) Chavhanga for making that balance to play two different guys who compliment each other’s skills. It might look easy, but we worked very hard on the training ground to make such a combination work well,” Makombe said, heaping further praise on Spain-based Chibuwe.
“He’s really improved. He is a young man willing to share the knowledge he has accumulated overseas. And he is still learning.”
With two wins out of two in the bag, the Sables would not be over-ambitious to start thinking of winning the Victoria Cup. They have won it before.
But according to Makombe, the long-term goal of all involved is to make the Sables a well-oiled machine by the time the 2023 World Cup qualifiers begin.
“The broader perspective is starting preparations for the World Cup,” he said. “The coaches have put emphasis on team culture, building processes. As much as we would love to win the Victoria Cup, the emphasis is on team culture.”
Next up for Zimbabwe is a much tougher assignment tomorrow at Hartsfield in Bulawayo against Kenya. The Kenyans, who have dominated the Sables in most recent meetings, are fresh from winning 43-23 last weekend away to Zambia, the competition’s weakest side.
The Simbas flew into Harare from Lusaka on Tuesday for the last leg of their Southern African tour, before travelling to Bulawayo by road on the same day.
So they will have acclimatised well with the conditions in Zimbabwe’s second largest city for the big Hartsfield Test tomorrow.
“They are good athletes, good rugby players,” Makombe said. “It’s not going to be easy. Obviously we’ve lots of respect for Kenya as much as they have for us. It’s going to be a good one. The Bulawayo fans are always amazing. I love the Bulawayo crowd. It’s not going to be easy for Kenya with that crowd.”
Makombe is, however, not part of the team to face the Kenyans tomorrow so he will not be able to add to his 19 caps for Zimbabwe. He has withdrawn from the squad due to personal commitments at home and in South Africa before he has to fly back to France to honour his new contract.
“We have enough depth at centre, the team will get the desired result with or without me,” he said.
“We have very good centres in the set-up. I know (Takudzwa) Chieza very well, we have played together since school. Then you have Stoney (Ngoni Chibuwe), Caps (Daniel Capsopolous) and the youngster Rufaro (Chikwaira). These guys can do an even better job.”
Although an all-round athlete as a young boy, Makombe’s love affair with rugby started at an early age at Lomagundi Junior and later on at Selborne Routledge Primary School.
Prince Edward is the natural choice of high school for Selborne Routledge leavers, more so if they play rugby.
But Makombe, quite strangely, preferred the old enemy over the Tigers.
“I opted for Churchill after one of my cousins encouraged me to do so. He said they had a better rugby team,” he said. “But I don’t regret. Outside my growth as a sportsman, Churchill taught me values and team culture, and I really grew as a man. I came across good coaches there in the form of Bob (Mahari), Jeff (Madhake) and the late Taya Chakarisa.”
Makombe’s club plays two tiers below the Top 14, the top-flight of French rugby and one of the richest domestic competitions in the world.
Plying his trade in the third division does also have attractive financial rewards as Makombe attests.
“French rugby has a lot of money, with good systems in place. There are a lot of clubs throughout the country with good sponsors,” Makombe said.
“Yes, to be honest, playing there has given me an opportunity to look after my family. Considering the situation back home, I feel blessed to be where I am – being able to be supportive to the people closest to me.”
Aside from his undeniable rugby talents, Makombe is no slouch in the classroom either.
He is also qualified to practice psychology, having graduated with a degree from the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa.
Life in France has been a thoroughly enjoyable experience, but it has not always been without challenges for the 27-year-old from Harare.
“It was very difficult at the beginning. Adjustment to the weather, language and culture wasn’t easy,” said Makombe.
“However, in the last year I attended French classes twice a week for 10 months and now that I can communicate, it has opened up opportunities for me outside of rugby. I have friends and I have integrated into the community.”