A rugby pioneer ahead of his time

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Young Sables prop Justin Mendelsohn (left) in action against Namibia during the Junior Africa Cup in Harare last year. Pic: Rugby Africa.

Enock Muchinjo

WITH diversity a topical issue at the ongoing Rugby World Cup in Japan — South Africa being captained by its historic first black captain amongst other themes — the pioneer who broke down the racial barriers at the inaugural Webb Ellis Cup 32 years ago has been hailed by a former Zimbabwe teammate as being a “phenomenal” player way ahead of his time.

Richard Tsimba was the first black African player to grace the World Cup when the continent’s single participant, Zimbabwe, featured in the opening edition in New Zealand in 1987, with the flying centre scoring a brilliant solo try against Romania on the hallowed turf of Eden Park — a fortress of the mighty All Blacks.

Loose forward Brendan Dawson was not part of the 1987 squad that Zimbabwe coach Brian Murphy took to New Zealand. Dawson, a multiple-capped ex-international now in his second tenure as the country’s coach, would team up with Tsimba for the 1991 edition in Britain and France under the stewardship of Ian Buchanan.

“He was world-class standards,” Dawson said of Tsimba this week. “He emerged from that 87 World Cup as a stand-out performer, highly rated by people around the world. Given the opportunity to turn professional, he would become an even better player. But of course, we played in the pre-professional era. He was years beyond his time, though, a great player.”

The diminutive Tsimba — always one of the smallest players on the field — was however a pivot the teams he played for revolved around, the general of the side in every respect.

“He was able to see space, and move into space,” remarked Dawson. “In defence he was also brilliant and of course he was equally comfortable at inside or outside centre. But I think his greatest attribute was making everyone around him look good because of the space he created, getting people into space. The timing of his pass, too, was a marvel. He was a phenomenal player.”

Dawson, who scored Zimbabwe’s only try in the 55-11 loss to Ireland in Dublin at the 1991 World Cup, has many wonderful memories of playing at the game’s biggest stage.

“It was amazing, and more special for me to score against Ireland,” said Dawson, a former mainstay of Bulawayo’s Old Miltonians club.

“The World Cup is the highest level you can play. For me, having played there myself, this is what I’m trying to do now as Zimbabwe coach, to get our team back there. It’s amazing and mind-blowing being around those people. It’s magnificent. For me, it’s about being there in that professional environment.

It’s the crucial part.”

Dawson, who also captained Zimbabwe for the bulk of his caps, is tipping the New Zealanders to win a third successive World Cup in Japan.

“I haven’t seen much, to be honest, I’ve been working too much,” said Dawson. “But all the top sides are playing well. Obviously there have been a few surprises with Japan and Uruguay. It will become clearer who is going where as we get into the quarter-finals. But I will probably go with the All Blacks.”

At separate times in his international career, Dawson played alongside the history-making Tsimba brothers — Richard and Kennedy — both World Rugby Hall of Fame inductees who, however, never played in the same team.

It was the gifted flyhalf Kennedy Tsimba who took over from Dawson as Sables captain in 1998, in doing so becoming the country’s first black skipper and adding another feather in the cap of the family’s proud rugby heritage following his older brother’s ground-breaking feat of the 1980s.

Harare-born and Peterhouse-schooled Richard Utete Tsimba, who would have been 54 years old this year, died in a car crash in the capital city in April 2000.

The man nicknamed “Black Diamond” in the rugby world played the last of his five Tests for Zimbabwe at the 1991 World Cup, signing off with a try in the 52-8 loss to Japan in Belfast.

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