Village boy to Springbok record-holder

Enock Muchinjo

INJURY is a predatory stalker dreaded by professional sportsmen around the world, with a sizeable number having fallen prey in the cruelest twist of fate imaginable.

Few, perhaps, more so than Tonderai Chavhanga, the ex-Springbok speed demon who we feature this week in our Zimbabwe-themed Rugby World Cup series of stories running during the tournament.

The injury curse struck very early in Chavhanga’s Test career, although two years after his debut he would return to the Boks fold for the away leg of the Tri-Nations in 2007, a World Cup year.

For the flying Zimbabwean, it looked like a timely comeback for a player regarded by Bok coach Jake White as the quickest he has ever coached, faster even, in the words of the World Cup-winning gaffer, than Bryan Habana — the world’s deadliest finisher for a lengthy period of his glittering career.

But hopes of going to the World Cup were quickly dashed after Chavhanga pulled his groin just before leaving for Australia, ruling him out of the Wallabies Test, which an experimental South Africa side lost 25-17 in Sydney.

He was only fit enough to start off the bench the following weekend against the All Blacks in Christchurch — where the Springboks were thrashed 33-6 — as White again tried out different combinations with the World Cup in mind. At that stage on tour, Chavhanga probably knew it deep down — much as White held him in the highest regard — that a ticket to France for the World Cup had slipped through the fingers.

“I needed to make it impossible for the coach not to select me and ultimately I did not do that,” Chavhanga tells IndependentSport this week in a wide-ranging interview.

“Bryan and JP (Pietersen) were phenomenal wingers for the Boks at the World Cup.”South Africa went on to win the World Cup in France, their second title and, while Chavhanga naturally felt proud of his adopted country, the tear-away winger can be forgiven for counting himself unlucky not to be part of the merry band of Springboks that hoisted the Webb Ellis Cup in Paris in October 2007.

“Jake had already planned on giving a rest to the majority of his starters for the (2007 Tri-Nations) Australasian tour and giving the fringe players a shot at putting their hands up for the World Cup,” Chavhanga says. “I would like to believe that I had as good a chance of making it as anyone in the squad.”

White writes glowingly of Chavhanga in his high-selling autobiography, In Black and White, and the respect is mutual between the two.

“Jake is the best coach I ever had,” Chavhanga tells us. “He is very meticulous in his planning. I remember the first time I got in the Bok camp in 2005 and he was laying out the plan of how we would win the (2007) World Cup. He is the type of coach that makes sure the team environment is conducive for absolute success and it goes to show with all the success he has enjoyed everywhere he has been.”

White handed a 21-year-old Chavhanga his Test debut against Uruguay in East London in June 2005. Ruthless Boks demolished the South Americans 134-3 and, perhaps fittingly so, the setting was the Eastern Cape — the heartland of South African black rugby — as Chavhanga crossed the whitewash six times to break the record for the most tries in a single Test for South Africa.

“The night before the Test all I asked God was to play well and, if possible, get one try,” Chavhanga says. “I obviously got abundantly more than I could hope for. After I scored my third or fourth try, Jake got the message on that my teammates needed to give me the ball so that I could break the record. The feeling I had after the game is still the feeling I have today, and that is of awe to the Almighty for taking me out of the village to giving me all the opportunities he gave me.”

The village Chavhanga speaks of here lies deep in Zimuto communal area, the place of his birth and early childhood in Masvingo Province — humble beginnings he is not at all ashamed of. It is the kind of modest upbringing that probably equipped Chavhanga with a natural affability and charm, from a village boy in remote Zimbabwean rural settings to a Springbok record-holder.

A move to the capital city Harare as a young boy would prove life-changing for Chavhanga, who despite knowing nothing about rugby until about the age of 10, was able to rapidly learn the sport due to in-born athleticism nurtured in childhood free-play on the rough fields of rural Zimuto.

“I grew up in a small village in Masvingo, where I was raised by a most loving grandma,” Chavhanga says. “My late uncle moved me to Harare when I was in grade six, to attend Blackiston Primary School. I quickly learn how to speak English and found it easy to make friends because of sport. Temba Mliswa and Gerald Maguranyanga introduced me to rugby when I was in grade seven and I fell in love with the sport. As they say, the rest is history.”

Development enthusiasts Mliswa and Maguranyanga, who were at the forefront of a spirited racial integration push those days, had long realised that the future of the game was in numbers, so they embarked on an ambitious grassroots coaching exercise.

“I owe Temba and Gerald a great debt of gratitude for introducing me to the sport I love,” Chavhanga comments. “They were great coaches and did a lot to introduce and develop the sport in areas where it was unknown. I remember them doing great work in places like Epworth.”

For senior school, Chavhanga went to Prince Edward, a Mecca of schoolboy sport in Zimbabwe, where the school’s late legendary rugby coach Ian Robertson — a Springbok icon — alongside sports teacher Patrick Gumunyu, were the biggest influence on him.

Chavhanga became a Springbok for the first time just two years after arriving in South Africa to initially join Free State Cheetahs. It was an immensely proud moment to add his name to a long list of “Zimbabwean Springboks”, an illustrious roster which includes his Prince Edward mentor, Ian Robertson.
In doing so, Chavhanga also scripted a unique piece of history by becoming the first black player from Zimbabwe to don the famous green-and-gold of the two-time world champions, paving way for the props Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira and Brian Mujati.

And while the three groundbreaking Springboks from across the Limpopo may seem different in personality and lifestyle, more so in the case of the very outspoken Mujati, they have formed a close bond for the better part of two decades.

“Tindo and Brian are my young brothers,” says Chavhanga. “We have had a great relationship for over 20 years.”As for Mtawarira, who is in Japan playing in his third World Cup at the age of 34, Chavhanga has nothing but high praise for his history-making fellow countryman.

“Beast has been an inspiration to millions around the world with not only the way he plays the game, but the way he conducts himself off the field,” Chavhanga piles on the plaudits. “Tindo is one of the most humble people you will ever meet. Because of his humility, it doesn’t get to his head that he has played over 150 Super Rugby games and that he is a Test centurion. He works as hard, if not harder, than when he was riding a bicycle to training fighting for a senior contract (with Sharks more than 10 years ago). The man deserves everything he has achieved, and more.”

The achievements of Mtawarira and the obvious ability shown by Chavhanga in an injury-ravaged career should surely open quite a few more South African doors for other Zimbabwean rugby players of similar background. While Chavhanga does not completely rule this out, he, however, insists he would be happier to see talented young Zimbabwean players aspire to become Sables instead.

“I’m sure we will (produce more Springboks) but if it doesn’t happen, it would certainly not be for a lack of talent in our country,” he says. “I hope that I will live to see young Zimbabweans growing up wanting to play for their country. I believe if a few things are put in place, we would be a lot closer to the other teams than we think.”

Apart from South Africa, other top rugby nations on the planet also continue to cap Zimbabwean-bred players, or players with origin in this country.
What makes Zimbabwe so special, then, consistently churning out world-class players across generations in this game?

“I’m not sure what the reason could be, except that maybe Zimbabweans are blessed with good genes for the sport,” replies Chavhanga.

With his playing days behind him, 35-year-old Chavhanga is now the assistant coach of Zimbabwe’s national team. In his first year as part of the Sables in 2019, the four-time capped Bok speedster helped his country of birth lift the Victoria Cup, a four-team Test championship with Kenya, Uganda and Zambia.
The collective goal now with Zimbabwe after a long World Cup absence by the Sables is to qualify for the next edition in 2023 and incidentally it will be played in France, the host nation when Chavhanga missed Springboks selection in 2007.

“I believe we have laid a good foundation under (Zimbabwe head coach) Brendan Dawson and if resources are put in, this team can not only qualify for the World Cup, but also be very competitive. We have a very good foreign legion of players that can potentially play for us. Some have expressed their desire to play for their country. We have oodles of talent. What is important is for us to carry on building on the progress we made this year. We are cognisant of the need for our players to be exposed to as many top-class games as possible so plans are in motion to play in next year’s SuperSport Challenge (Zimbabwe made its debut this year), which is immensely beneficial for our group. There are also plans to play a few Test matches against teams in the top 30 of world rugby. We now need the corporate world to get behind the development of the sport.

Japan has been the story of the 2019 World Cup because of the huge investment that has gone into the sport. I believe Zimbabwe has the numbers and quality athletes to be a force in world rugby.”

Away from his Zimbabwe post, which is a part-time role at the moment, Chavhanga has been gaining a foothold on the fuel industry in South Africa, amongst other business ventures.

His grueling injury battles, he says, have equipped him with vital life lessons in his post-playing days.“Suffering from many injuries as I did was incredibly frustrating, but I believe because I was able to handle the disappointment of that, I have been able to tackle disappointments in the real world, that is life after rugby,” Chavhanga says. “Every disappointment is an opportunity to reassess oneself and one has to keep it moving.”

Turning to the unfolding contest in Japan, which has reached fever pitch in anticipation of the quarter-finals this weekend, Chavhanga has been thoroughly enjoying the action.

“Though marred by controversy surrounding officiating amongst other things, this has been a great World Cup,” remarks Chavhanga. “We have seen Uruguay beat a star-studded Fijian team and the hosts Japan humble Ireland and Scotland in tremendous fashion.

The knockout phase will be one of the most tightly-contested in World Cup history because anyone can beat anyone, which is great for our sport. As for the title, I would like SA to win, of course, but I believe it will be between the Boks and the All Blacks.

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