A POWERFUL Italy team, half their squad two years later at the inaugural Rugby World Cup, arrived in Zimbabwe in June 1985 to a bruising reception on a two-week tour of the new African nation.
The Europeans were defeated 24-13 by local provincial side Mashonaland in a fiercely-contested warm-up match at Police Grounds, a hint of what was to be expected in the two Test games against the hosts’ national team in Harare and Bulawayo.
Fast, rangy and strong Mashonaland winger Herbert Mensah — a Ghanaian who turned out for the Old Hararians club and the only black player fielded that afternoon — scored the try that settled matters in a match fondly remembered by the 6 000 or so spectators who braved the chilly weather to witness the encounter in Harare 34 years ago.
Gaining selection into a fairly star-studded Mashonaland team, for somebody hailing from a football-mad country not known for rugby, was no mean accomplishment and indeed Mensah describes that match — and the try — as the highlight of his playing career.
The first World Cup took place two years later and six of Mensah’s Mashonaland teammates from that Italy clash –Malcolm Jellicoe, Alex Nicholls, Andy Ferreira, Andre Buitendag, Dirk Buitendag, Neville Kloppers — were selected in Zimbabwe’s squad that travelled to New Zealand for the historic tournament.
Scrumhalf Jellicoe was chosen captain while Brian Murphy — Mashonaland’s coach against the Italians and an admirer of Mensah — was tasked with guiding the Sables at the 87 World Cup and would most probably have picked the Ghanaian for the tournament had he met eligibility criteria.
Born into a wealthy Ashanti family — his late tycoon father was one of Ghana’s richest people — Mensah had his first serious contact with rugby in the United Kingdom, where he completed high school and then studied economics at Sussex University.
He was good enough to represent Sussex University, Sussex County and the Saracens club. An entrepreneurial streak in his family environment would see Mensah enter the business world while still a student, becoming an instant success.
In the early 1980s, he came to Zimbabwe after an opportunity arose in the tobacco industry.Old Hararians, which brought together a fine generation of Zimbabwean players and had strong connection with the tobacco business back then, provided the perfect rugby home for the young Ghanaian to showcase his talents , culminating in his victorious single first-class appearance in 1985 for the country’s best provincial side.
The Azzurri recovered well on tour to win the two Tests against the Sables, a comfortable 25-6 victory in Bulawayo before scrapping home 12-10 in a cliff-hanger in Harare.
Then there were three more tour matches where the Italians defeated Matabeleland 38-12 in Bulawayo, Midlands 31-26 in Gweru before wrapping up the African sojourn with a 20-9 grudge match win over Mashonaland at Banket in a tie Mensah did not feature. A chap of quite a sumptuous lifestyle in his youthful days, a teammate of Mensah in the 80s tells me how the Ghanaian would play a game for Old Hararians on Saturday, fly home to London on the Sunday, then land back in Harare the following Thursday in time for practice and the weekend’s league game.
Mensah is these days a very successful entrepreneur in his own right, a well-respected philanthropist as well as a renowned mover-and-shaker on the African business arena.
Sport is also still a big part of his life. Mensah is a successful past chairman of Asante Kotoko, one of his native country’s biggest football clubs. He is also credited with playing a massive role in changing the face of Ghanaian professional football.
In 2017, he was elected president of Ghana’s national rugby association and in two years he has transformed the sport into something people talk about in the West African nation, with playing and spectator numbers growing significantly during the period under review.
When he took over the reins, Mensah –using his knowledge of the game and valuable experience obtained from England and Zimbabwe — undertook an ambitious drive to make rugby part of Ghana’s national psyche.
An important figure in the vision has been Ghana’s national team coach Lovemore Kuzorera, a hardworking young Zimbabwean — known commonly as Dallas – who arrived in the country a year before Mensah was elected into office.
Together, federation boss and national coach laid out a blue-print to lift the team from the lower tiers of African rugby.It has been a real roller coaster for Ghanaian rugby. Last weekend — after months of hard work, perseverance and sacrifice — host Ghana beat Botswana to gain promotion among the continent’s top 16 national teams, who will play in a new Africa Cup format, with the aim of qualifying for the 2023 World Cup in France.
Five years ago, Ghana was not even a full member of both World Rugby and Rugby Africa. Now they will be rubbing shoulders with the best Africa has to offer in this sport.
Ghana’s 36-27 victory over Botswana last weekend was a reminder of how far they have come in a space of just three years.The magnitude of the West Africans’ success can be measured accurately by looking at the historic difference between them and their opponents in last weekend’s quest for promotion.
When you compare the two, rugby has a greater presence in Botswana, in a big way due to proximity to the more established rugby nations, South Africa and Zimbabwe.
Last weekend’s outcome is the biggest achievement yet in the career of 34-year-old Kuzorera, a humble coach who comes from the townships back home in Zimbabwe, raised in sprawling Mabvuku, and attended the very modest Morgan High School in Harare.
Mensah and Kuzorera, quite interestingly, are not the only Zimbabwe-connected figures spearheading a Ghanaian rugby revolution.Upon assuming office, Mensah secured the services of Englishman Collin Osborne, who has brought a wealth of experience in the part-time role of technical adviser.
West Indies-born Osborne, who resigned as skills coach of UK Premiership club Harlequins in September 2018, was Zimbabwe’s coach between 1993 and 1996, having had an earlier spell as the country’s director of rugby and development from 1987 to 1990.
When the first signs emerged last year that South African Peter de Villiers was on his way out of the Zimbabwe job with a year still left on his contract, Osborne was heavily linked with a return to a country he has maintained close ties with over the years, having also in fact been interviewed when the former Springbok coach was preferred for the Sables post in February 2018. Now, with the name of Zimbabwe already prominent in shaping the future of rugby in Ghana, history will be made next year on June 20.
In securing promotion, Ghana booked a historic match against Zimbabwe, perhaps a befitting continental top-flight rugby debut for the West Africans.
They will travel here for the first international rugby game between the two countries in the sides’ opening match of the newly-revamped Africa Cup tournament.
Many will expect a baptism of fire for the Ghanaians in Zimbabwe, and it should be.
But what a unique occasion it will be: a young coach plotting his own country’s downfall — with the patronage of a business magnate trying to make a big, bold statement by conquering a country that gave him his best moment as a player.