A Flying Elephant and Black Diamond who sparked evolution

SEVENTEEN days and 383 kilometres — the latter being the distance between Northern Ireland’s capital Belfast and the central England city of Coventry — was what separated two landmark occasions in the careers of two of Zimbabwe’s most naturally gifted sportsmen since the new country was born four decades ago.

ENOCK MUCHINJO

One scored a wonder goal that marked the beginning of his journey to legendary status with a club in the best football league in the world, while the other bowed out of international rugby with a try at a World Cup seen for the first time as a major global sporting event.

September 28 in 1991 was the day when a sparkling 18-year-old forward named Peter Ndlovu — in his first season with English top division club Coventry City — coolly dribbled past defenders before letting rip an out-footed drive that nestled into the corner of the net as the home team beat Midlands rivals Aston Villa 1-0 at Highfield Road. Though the teenage winger-cum-striker from Zimbabwe had scored another winner earlier that month away to London giants Arsenal, showing admirable composure to slot home past David Seaman — one of the best goalkeepers in the world at the time — what, however, launched a lasting bond between Ndlovu and Coventry was the wizardry and sweet strike against Villa in front of a passionate home faithful.

Also rather slightly-built but possessing the same kind of lightning pace and flair on the ball, with similar graceful movement around the field and an uncanny ability to leave defenders grasping at thin air, was Richard Tsimba.

After Ndlovu’s stunning effort against Villa, Tsimba — who was eight years older than his fellow dazzling countryman —would also score 17 days later somewhere else in the United Kingdom.

On October 14, the mercurial outside-centre from Harare crossed the whitewash for one of Zimbabwe’s two tries in the 52-8 defeat to Japan in Belfast in both eliminated sides’ final pool match of the 1991 Rugby World Cup tournament.

Five European countries co-hosted that second edition of the Rugby World Cup, with Tsimba playing in all the Sables’ three 50-point plus defeats to Ireland, Scotland and Japan.

While in 1991 a very young Ndlovu was showing no fear in his first professional season in England against men much older, Tsimba had in fact burst onto the world scene four years earlier as a super-gifted 22-year-old, scoring in breathtaking style against Romania — a solo effort lauded as one of the best tries of that inaugural Rugby World Cup in New Zealand in 1987.

At the famed Eden Park in Auckland in Zimbabwe’s first World Cup match, star man Tsimba grabbed a brace of tries for the Sables and it was probably due to his injury-inspired substitution deep in the second half that Brian Murphy’s young, but well-drilled African side did not emerge with a thoroughly deserved win, eventually narrowly losing 21-20 to Romania.

Curiously, the only five national team caps earned by Tsimba — the first black person to play rugby for Zimbabwe — were all from the two World Cup tournaments four years apart, which means that one of the country’s best talents in the multi-racial era not only had a very short Test career, but also never got to play a single international match in front of a home crowd.

This was due in part to the young man’s reputation as a globetrotter, something that emanated from a comfortable family background. Tsimba had been educated at Ruzawi and then Peterhouse College, top private school in Marondera, 72km east of Harare.

Following the World Cup in 1987, Tsimba went to live in the United States, where he studied while playing for California-based Belmont Shore, a club located on a beautiful coastline in a suburb of Long Beach, the perfect setting for an exploring amateur rugby player free of the strenuous workouts of the professional circuit.

And then after the 1991 World Cup, Tsimba also spent a considerable amount of time travelling abroad. Multiple caps or not, what cannot be disputed is that Tsimba — who would have been celebrating his 55th birthday this month had it not been for a fatal car accident that took his life in Harare in 2000 — was a rugby player well ahead of his time. Perhaps the only question we should answer is: what kind of player was the world going to see had Tsimba showcased his talents in the professional era of the game?

Should we ignore Tsimba’s outstanding abilities in the pre-professional period of rugby, focussing on the fact that he played just five international matches, and exclude him from the illustrious list of the greatest sportspersons to represent this nation in the last four decades?

Let us, for a moment, put aside Tsimba’s brief international rugby career and pose another question: what would make him equal the lofty achievements of some of this country’s world beaters across the different disciplines had he played professional-era rugby?

In southern hemisphere rugby, the answer will be, perhaps, success in the Super Rugby competition with any of the SANZAAR franchises — or up in the northern hemisphere — winning the European Cup or the league title in England or France.

Tsimba’s international career, though exciting — an exhibition of amazing athleticism in the amateur era — was indeed very short.
Neither did he play domestic rugby for any of the big clubs or franchises in the world. And in a global sporting community that is increasingly becoming too obsessed with statistics, many sports lovers in Zimbabwe will probably not include the name Tsimba if asked to draft their top 10 list, or top five, of this country’s best sportspersons since 1980.

But to do so would be some kind of betrayal and great oversight by the people of his own country because no less an organisation than World Rugby — the global governing body of the sport — honoured Tsimba’s world-class natural talents as well as off-field cultural impact on the sport, posthumously inducting the late maestro into the game’s Hall of Fame in 2012 alongside his younger brother Kennedy.

A pioneering rugby player in every respect, world rugby woken up to a rare ace in 1987 after Tsimba’s five-star show against Romania at the spiritual home of the All Blacks, during a time the sport was still both aristocratic and lacking ethnic diversity at the top.

The origin of Tsimba’s nickname, Black Diamond, varies with each individual’s attempt to explain it. Others believe it to be recognition of the player’s “precious” talents, like the treasured gem.

But most likely it is racial reference deriving from 1987, because besides being the only player of colour in Zimbabwe’s 24-man squad, none of the other 15 countries at that inaugural World Cup had an ethnic black player in their squad.

And to imagine that Tsimba was not there at that 1987 World Cup to fulfill some kind of selection quotas, he in fact arrived in New Zealand touted as Zimbabwe’s trump card, made him an exceptionally rare rugby player in the world at that time.

Of course, a lot has changed since 1987 in terms of the rise in black rugby players of quality and world-class status. But it has been a slow, gradual process. South Africa’s historic first black captain and 2019 World Cup-winner, Siya Kolisi, was only born four years after the introductory World Cup edition where Tsimba left a mark.

The story of Tsimba is a classic one of statistics versus sheer ability.

Ndlovu — nicknamed Flying Elephant because of his fearsome speed and surname that means “elephant” in his native Ndebele language — can also be thrown into that narrative.

A history-making footballer with his milestone of being the first African to play in the English Premiership; the first visiting player, as he did in 1995, to score a hat-trick against Liverpool at Anfield since 1961; 43 goals for Coventry City between 1991 and 1997 — not the most prolific record, but a great number of these being strikes of the highest quality by a player to which style was a hallmark.

Then at home, Zimbabwe’s most-capped footballer and record goal-scorer; a cult hero in his country due to countless great individual performances for the national team; the first captain to lead the nation to Africa Cup of Nations qualification.

Yet when we speak of the country’s greatest sports stars since 1980, Bulawayo-born Ndlovu — who like Tsimba did not win major trophies or play for the best teams in the world at both national and club level — will be seen as competing for honours with fellow Zimbabweans who have been Olympic champions, world number ones, and Grand Slam winners.

It is not unique to Zimbabwe, though. The debate of numbers against pure ability has raged on in the sporting world without a consensus coming out. But as we look back at the past 40 years of Zimbabwean sport, and some memorable moments the decades has delivered, surely nothing should deny men like Ndlovu and Tsimba a very special place among the greatest of the era.

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