Granny’s boys, rural upbringing, the Springbok history-makers

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Enock Muchinjo

JAKE White, the cunning former Springbok coach, had a last throw of the dice to try and take Zimbabwean Tonderai Chavhanga to the 2007 World Cup in France.

A top prospect in world rugby before injuries ravaged his very promising career, it was White who had handed the Masvingo-born speedster his international debut in 2005, against Uruguay, when 21-year-old Chavhanga scored six times to break the record for the most tries in a single Test for South Africa.

In his enthralling autobiography, In Black and White, the 2007 World Cup-winning coach reveals his great admiration for the dashing winger, the quickest man in world rugby at the peak of his athletic powers.

So when White was in the final stages of compiling his World Cup squad, he cast his net wide by taking a side dominated by non-regulars to Australasia for the away leg of the 2007 Tri-Nations tournament, with both ties ending in defeat for the Boks.

Injury-prone Chavhanga, White hoped, would play well enough on tour to gatecrash the World Cup party — albeit against political pressure from a section of South African authorities that in the first place never approved of the Zimbabwean’s initial call-up two years earlier.

As fate would have it, Chavhanga agonisingly pulled his groin just before leaving for Australia, ruling him out of the Wallabies Test and then only certified fit enough for a place on the bench the following week against the All Blacks.

With that, the World Cup dream of the speed demon from Zimbabwe was shattered. It was a bitter turn of events for Chavhanga who, to his credit, has courageously took the great disappointment in his stride.

Last month, the 35-year-old Springbok record-holder — who is now Zimbabwe’s national team assistant coach — granted me an exclusive interview as part of this newspaper’s special series of locally-themed features during the exciting 2019 World Cup edition won by South Africa, the adopted country he represented just four times due to recurring injuries, between 2005 and 2008.

The ex-Prince Edward School prodigy opened up about his humble beginnings in his birthplace, a small remote village nestled in the Zimuto communal areas of Masvingo Province, south-eastern Zimbabwe.

In a heart-touching and inspiring real-life story of boyhood deprivation in a Zimbabwean rural outpost — to breaking a record in one of world sport’s proudest teams — Chavhanga took readers of this paper through the trials and tribulations of an elite athlete who defied his impoverished background to stand among global giants of a discipline long considered an aristocratic sport.

He narrated how up to the age of 10 he knew nothing about the sport that would later become his life, until an uncle brought him to the capital city Harare — only able to converse in his Shona mother-tongue — then the dedicated grassroots coaches Temba Mliswa and Gerald Maguranyanga putting the intricacies of rugby onto to the youngster’s raw, unrestrained pace at Blakiston Primary School.

Then he also spoke of how he had grown up in Zimuto under the loving care of his grandmother, a cherished figure in his life.

It is an intriguing similarity: Chavhanga’s story is one that tallies with that of another Springbok history-maker, Makazole Mapimpi, the winger who became the first South African to score a try in a World Cup final after the Boks outclassed England 32-12 to clinch their third title in Japan at the beginning of this month.

29-year-old Mapimpi was raised by his grandmother in the rural areas of the Eastern Cape, enduring a difficult upbringing after his mother died when he was four years old. He never knew his father.

Although the Eastern Cape is a recognised heartland of black rugby in South Africa, Mapimpi had rudimentary grasp of the game while growing up, never having enjoyed the privilege of attending one of the country’s numerous traditional rugby-playing schools. Neither did he come through one of the well-established steps of South African youth rugby from which many successive generations of Springboks have emerged in the 128-year history of this team.

Yet, even when at one stage he started to believe that professional rugby wasn’t for people like him — a poor township-born and rural-raised boy from the Eastern Cape — Mapimpi did not stop dreaming.

Today he is the best finisher in a rugby-mad country, and broke its World Cup final try-scoring drought since the iconic Nelson Mandela presented the Rain Nation’s first Webb Ellis Trophy to Springbok captain Francois Pienaar in 1995.

What is the moral of the story, then, reading the meteoric rise of such men like Mapimpi and Chavhanga?Well, they say rugby is a game for all shapes and sizes.
From this story, we can safely deduce that rugby is also a game for all backgrounds and races: rich or poor, township or uptown, urban or rural.

The words of the brilliant rugby song, World In Union, have never been more appropriate: Gathering together, One mind, One heart, Every creed, Every colour, Once joined, Never apart.

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