A CHALLENGE was thrown to me this week when media colleague Brian Matamba sent me his Zimbabwe rugby team fantasy line-up of the past 10 years — Sables Team of the Decade (2010-2019) — nudging me to share mine with him.
Accepting the challenge, I came up with my own selection and decided to share both, for a bit of fun and debate. Hopefully, there will be lots of it!
Zimbabwe is blessed with many very good rugby players. Others, perhaps the best of the lot, have gone on to play for other nations. Plenty of other gifted players from here simply have not returned to represent their homeland, despite not being internationally capped elsewhere.
Even though, among those to have answered Zimbabwe’s call, pulling over the famous green-and-white hoops of the Sables, there has never been a shortage of quality players.
It is no easy task, therefore, to compile a list of the best 15 players of a decade in a country like Zimbabwe, where talent is in abundance.The trickiest part of such an attempt as ours is that selection is purely based on the best players in their respective positions — to form a proper rugby team — and not necessarily a compilation of the finest 15 individuals regardless, which would then constitute an unbalanced side.
The downside of it is that such selection criteria exclude a lot of other very outstanding players who, in the eyes of many—with good reason — should surely be somewhere around such a dream team.
As such, it will naturally cause a stir of disapproval in some circles of the rugby public. But I consider this to be the fun aspect of it, and may enthralling debate ensue!
Another selection headache is that there are quite a few exceptional players who belong to the previous era and featured for the Sables only around the beginning to the middle of the just-ended decade.
Similarly, we have witnessed some amazing Sables players to emerge in the last few years of the past decade — splendid talent too good to ignore.
On this front, Brian and I agree on the selection of tight-head prop Farai Mudariki and open-side flank Connor Pritchard, potentially world-class young players, one strutting his stuff in the English Premiership and the other drawing the attention of Australian Super Rugby teams.
Distinctly, there is a lengthy list of core players who featured consistently throughout the decade, winning trophies, and such men — Costa Dinha, Fortune Chipendu, Jacques Leitao, Prayer Chitenderu, Norman Mukondiwa, Daniel Hondo, Cleopas Makotose, Tich Makwanya and Gardner Nechironga — earn selection in both our teams without much fuss.
In the case of Chitenderu, we both pick him, quite interestingly, at hooker. Primarily a flank, Chitenderu was also, to me, in contention for a place among the loose forward stocks.
You could say it is an indictment on the specialist hookers in Zimbabwe that they have been dislodged in such a team by somebody not a natural number 2. For me, I would rather see it as testimony of the all-round qualities of Chitenderu, a superbly-built athlete and hard-as-nails fighter who excelled as a makeshift hooker to an extent of being the best in the position.
In overall selection, we did differ on two occasions: firstly, the direct choices of Denford Mutamangira and Alfred Sairai at loose-head prop.
Zimbabwe’s exemplary captain between 2015 and 2018, Mutamangira amassed the bulk of his 50-plus Test caps in the decade and pretty much made the number 1 position his own.
My choice, though, is Sairai. Although largely a player from a previous era, the beastly former Old Hararians front-rower was still at his menacing best as part of a group of players that initially hauled Zimbabwe back from the lower tiers of African rugby at the beginning of the decade.
A battle-hardened warrior of many Sables contests, Sairai would only thereafter feature in sporadic Tests up to around 2014, but did well enough to get my nod head of Mutamangira.
In the other selection clash, Tangai “Too Bad” Nemadire — a genius fullback for Zimbabwe for most of the decade — is duly picked at 15 by Brian while I await the backlash by slotting him on the wing, a position from which this freak of nature introduced himself to Test rugby as a teenage ace more than 10 years ago.
The selection of Nemadire at 14 makes the tear-away Tafadzwa Chitokwindo the biggest casualty of my team, a potentially controversial omission. Still on the wing, I also feel for Wes Mbanje, who acquired a handful of caps in the decade. But many will agree with me that the prolific finisher from Bulawayo was never more fearsome than he was before the era under review.
The same can probably be said of another winger, Gerald Sibanda.To fill the void left by Nemadire’s switch to right wing in my line-up, I have gone for the courageous Danny Robertson, who to me was an absolute sensation at fullback in the Zimbabwe side that dominated the Victoria Cup in 2011 and also won the Africa Cup a year later in 2012.
Also gaining a spot in the two line-ups ahead of very tough competition is scrumhalf Charles Jiji, the little genius who was part of the double-header trophy spell of 2011-2012. Incidentally, Jiji’s closest competition for the number 9 jersey is the 2019 Victoria Cup-winning captain, Hilton Mudariki. Older brother of prop Farai and a consistent performer for the past five years, Hilton is conspicuous by his absence from both teams.
Scotty Jones was the other top contender at scrumhalf for me while upfront, Jan Ferreira was a firm challenger for a spot in the second row. I am sure though that Jan will be the first to admit that the two men we have picked as lock pairing are irreplaceable.
I have nominated the Africa Cup-winning stalwart captain Costa Dinha as my skipper while the hugely respected Jacques Leitao leads Brian’s team.There was no competition for coach Brendan Dawson, who inside the decade guided Zimbabwe to an Africa Cup and two Victoria Cups as well as coming the closest in 24 years to guide the Sables to the World Cup.
Sables team of the decade
Matamba: 1. Denford Mutamangira 2. Prayer Chitenderu 3. Farai Mudariki 4. Costa Dinha 5. Fortune Chipendu 6. Jacques Leitao (captain) 7. Connor Pritchard 8. Norman Mukondiwa 9. Charles Jiji 10. Tichafara Makwanya 11. Gardner Nechironga 12. Daniel Hondo 13. Cleopas Makotose 14. Tafadzwa Chitokwindo 15. Tangai Nemadire. — Coach: Brendan Dawson.
Muchinjo: 1. Alfred Sairai 2. Prayer Chitenderu 3. Farai Mudariki 4. Costa Dinha (captain) 5. Fortune Chipendu 6. Jacques Leitao 7. Connor Pritchard 8. Norman Mukondiwa 9. Charles Jiji 10. Tichafara Makwanya 11. Gardner Nechironga 12. Daniel Hondo 13. Cleopas Makotose 14. Tangai Nemadire 15. Danny Robertson. — Coach: Brendan Dawson.