DISGUSTED is a pretty strong term, but when one former Zimbabwe Sevens rugby player told me he felt exactly that way upon seeing pictures of the current squad smirking widely and happily displaying their third-place medals at the Olympic Games qualification tournament in Johannesburg last weekend, I didn’t feel he needed to tone down the slightest bit.
Sports Panorama with Enock Muchinjo
“Disgraceful” was how I had put it myself, perhaps too harsh from a chap who has never experienced anything remotely close to the intense seven-minute halves of this very short but rigorous version of rugby.
But when even more damning assessment is delivered by those who all things being equal should be more sympathetic because they understand the circumstances better, having been there themselves, you come to the sad conclusion that something has gone terribly wrong with our Sevens rugby team.
For those not familiar with the history of this team, let me put it into perspective for you.
Exactly a decade ago, Zimbabwe’s team was sitting on top of the world after winning the bowls section of the 2009 Rugby World Cup Sevens in Dubai — brushing aside Georgia in the quarter-finals and Uruguay in the semis before another inspired performance in the final to edge out Ireland 17-14.
Ten years later, last week in Jo’burg after losing tamely to Uganda in the Africa Cup semi-finals — effectively blowing the opportunity to fight it out with Kenya in the final for a spot at Tokyo 2020 — images later emerged of Zimbabwe’s squad celebrating a play-off win over Madagascar, bronze medals around necks and all.
For me, the disappointment stems largely from having grown up in this job on a good diet of Zimbabwean rugby teams that play with heart and pride and I will go so far as to say nowhere do we find sportsmen who represent this country with a greater sense of patriotism than rugby players.
Losing, or anything less than standards set out by the group, is not something that is taken well in a Zimbabwe rugby dressing room.
Calling a spade a spade, though, there is just no fire in the current Sevens side and the old guard is completely justified to be outraged by the unfortunate scenario existing today.
What’s even more frustrating — when you examine the situation holistically — is that the players aren’t totally to blame.
We all agree, the class of 2009 that rose to the podium in Dubai, under the inspirational captaincy of the classy Jacques Leitao, was one of the finest Zimbabwean teams ever assembled in any format in this country.
Daniel Hondo, Wes Mbanje, Cleopas Makotose, Gardner Nechironga, Tangai Nemadire, Fortune Chipendu, Grant Mitchell, Gerald Sibanda, Slater Ndlovu, Willis Magasa, Ryan Manyika — these were all gifted individuals who could conjure up something very special on a rugby field.
Even so, the current side does not contain the worst players in the world either. The squad has some of the best Zimbabwean talent I have seen in my experience of covering this sport.
It is when you look back at the depth of preparation and conditioning afforded to the class of 2009 before that World Cup, under the astute leadership of manager Bruce Hobson, that you truly acknowledge the extent with which the current crop was hung out to dry ahead of the Olympic qualifiers.
It’s baffling how before such an important Olympic qualification tournament there couldn’t be any more preparatory activity outside the Hong Kong, Zambia and Safari Sevens tournaments — all of which were poorly prepared for.
And the results have spoken for themselves.
The blame game can start. But this is not my biggest worry at the moment.
The team’s pride has taken quite a battering lately and I feel greatly concerned by what now looks like a clear lack of ambition.
From a side which 10 years ago was scooping one of the three team accolades at a World Cup, to one that now triumphantly celebrate coming a disappointing third in continental Olympic qualifiers — where just one spot is up for grab — just doesn’t sit well.