BRANDON Mandivenga was certainly going to be one of the first residents to evacuate coronavirus-ravaged northern Italy had he been privileged with early knowledge of the grave threat of the epidemic that has left a trail of devastation in the deeply troubled European nation.
Mandivenga, though, like many in Italy and other hardest-hit parts of the world, was caught off-guard. So Zimbabwe’s national rugby team captain is currently unable to leave Italy — the country that has recorded the most Covid-19 fatalities in the world with more than 17 000 deaths to date.
The vastly gifted Zimbabwean utility back has been playing domestic rugby in that country for second-tier side CUS Genova, a club based in the coastal city of Genoa, north of Italy, the region worst affected by the disease in this once lively country of over 60 million people.
While the easygoing 25-year-old from Harare has revealed a clean bill of health this week in an interview with us from the safety of his Genoa apartment, a huge relief for his small southern African country with a proud tradition of producing many top-class rugby players, Mandivenga’s most important lesson from the shock Covid-19 global outbreak is typical of the man’s calm approach to life: never take anything for granted.
“It is very easy to coast through life and take things for granted,” said Mandivenga. “But when a pandemic such as this one takes over, it makes you realise that you, indeed, took things for granted and didn’t make use of the time you had. The biggest thing that I’ve learnt is that you have to make the most of whatever time you are given as you never know what will happen, or when that time will be taken away.”
It is still being hoped that football’s Serie A competition can resume at a later stage in the year after sport across the globe was brought to a halt in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, but Italy’s rugby season has already been called off, with a huge chunk of fixtures still left in the term.
Owing to the nationwide lockdown that has also affected international travel, Mandivenga will stay put in Italy until the situation returns to normalcy.
“It has been a very big blow to me and everyone else involved I’m sure,” he said.
“Going from a full-time training programme and playing games on weekends to being restricted to your household has been very hard. But it is for our safety, which is very much understandable. The lockdown here has been very strict as it should be.
“I’m staying indoors and exercising four to five times a week, but I am mainly spending my days playing ‘Call of Duty’, which has kept the clock ticking. It’s definitely hard to go through times like this, not just for me, but for the others around me, and for those that have been affected.
“What has kept me going is knowing that I have been safe and those close to me have also been safe. That is the most important thing to me in a period like this. My family has been very supportive and they have been checking up on me every day, to make sure I’m safe and healthy.”
Italy has been reviewing its lockdown measures every fortnight by presidential decree, and the next one is this coming Monday.
As for Mandivenga, precautionary measures have been his protective buffer against this unforeseen menace that has visited his doorstep.
“I am adhering to the lockdown guides but staying indoors and only leaving home when necessary to buy supplies and groceries. And then also washing and sanitising my hands as often as possible.”
A friend in the United Kingdom, where Mandivenga played varsity rugby while attending Loughborough College, was diagnosed with Covid-19, but has since recuperated.
While nobody close to him has been affected or died of the disease in his present station, the Zimbabwe captain has witnessed in anguish the massive toll that the coronavirus has taken on normal life in Italy. “It has been hard for everyone here as everything has basically come to a standstill,” said Mandivenga.
“Only essential travel and work is continuing, so this means some people may no longer have a source of income due to businesses taking a hit from inactivity and lack of customers. On top of this, people are losing their lives as well as their loved ones. The situation is not ideal at all.”
Things have moved at rapid pace for Mandivenga in the past couple of years. Only two years ago, he made his international debut in 2018 as part of a youth brigade thrown into the deep end in crucial World Cup qualifiers by former Springbok mentor Peter de Villiers, who had a disastrous tenure as Zimbabwe’s coach.
And then last year, the ex-Peterhouse College maestro — who can play at fullback, flyhalf, centre and sometimes wing — was named Zimbabwe’s new substantive captain.
With that appointment, Mandivenga became one of the youngest and least experienced men to be handed that role in the 110-year history of Zimbabwe’s national rugby team, nicknamed the Sables.
He would however lead the team on just one occasion last year, against Zambia, before suffering a long-term injury that kept him out of the other five Tests played by Zimbabwe in 2019 as the Sables went on to clinch the Victoria Cup, a four-nation continental championship.
Following years out in the wilderness, Zimbabwe, now with a tremendously promising young team under the leadership of Mandivenga, is now hoping to return to rugby’s World Cup in 2023 for the first time since 1991.
Mandivenga, while remaining characteristically hopeful, fears, however, that world sport might take a very long time to fully recover from the impact of Covid-19 disruption.
“It will definitely have big impact on sport,” Mandivenga said. “Most sports have cancelled their seasons or suspended them indefinitely so there will be a period where things resume, but it will not be the same as before. Most sports would have taken financial hits as well as inactivity for an extended period.”