My pal, my earliest sporting hero

LANKY John Marira sat dejectedly on the pitch-side and spread his long legs on the grass, his eyes sharply focussed on the action, the pain on his sprained ankle nothing compared to that of having to helplessly watch his huffing and puffing teammates receive a harsh football lesson from Lord Malvern School.

Enock Muchinjo

Steered by the phenomenal talents of Onismor Bhasera alongside the twins Peter and Patrick Mubaiwa — the star players in one of the most entertaining schoolboy teams produced in Zimbabwe — Harare’s Lord Malvern delivered, back in August of 2002, a thoroughly dominant performance in the final of the Coca-Cola-sponsored national schools championship.

For Marira, a fierce competitor who despised losing, the 5-0 mauling by Lord Malvern — in a final that had been billed as a tightly-contested affair — was a tormenting experience for the speedy and free-scoring Mutare Boys High centre forward, who had travelled to the tournament at Jameson High School in Kadoma but suffered an injury blow in training to be ruled out of the entire event. Not able to stomach the thought of being a spectator in a crucial tournament, Marira had asked to be sent back home, but being some kind of superstar, team management decided that his presence was enough to motivate his colleagues and, indeed, exciting Mutare Boys High roared into the final without their go-to man.

A gangly striker who was a perpetual threat on the ground and in the air, Marira—always in the thick of things in every sport he played — felt he could have done something on that day to at least limit the damage inflicted by riotous Lord Malvern, who had earlier that season defeated a fancied Prince Edward School side headlined those days by Quincy Antipas and Lloyd Masakusi.

Marira would have backed himself to use his blistering pace upfront to unsettle the well-drilled Lord Malvern defence, speed being his prime weapon across a variety of sporting activities: a quick-footed flyhalf or outside-back in rugby, a pace bowler in cricket, a 100m and 200m sprinter, a mercurial point-guard in basketball.

Rugby was his chief sport, but so good was Marira in a wide range of other disciplines that when Mutare Boys High reached the districts stage of the Coca-Cola tournament in Manicaland in 2002, the football coach called him up to add firepower to his team in the quest to conquer the province and ultimately the country.

Conquer Manicaland they did, with Marira’s goals as well as key contributions from the likes of Clemence “Skude” Mukudu and Blessing Makukutu propelling Mutare Boys High to the national finals in Kadoma, where glory was within sight before Lord Malvern turned on the style to claim the most coveted trophy in Zimbabwean schools sport.

Marira had been persuaded to move to Mutare Boys’ High by its headmaster after a top-drawer show against them for the Under-15 rugby team of Ellis Robins Boys High, where the multi-talented sports star was a close friend and classmate of yours truly for three years. So the best all-round sportsman I have had the greatest pleasure of knowing up close packed his trunk in 1999 and headed east of the country after managing to convince his parents that boarding school life far from home, away from distractions of the capital city, was the ideal environment for him to balance studies and his strong appetite for sport.

Repeating form three upon arrival at Mutare, Marira was instantly drafted into the rugby first team, becoming the mainstay of the side for four years and captaining it in his last year in 2002.

Not particularly muscular — he was lean but with amazing strength for a chap of his build — Marira, however, knew he could always count on his acceleration to make up for his physical shortcomings.

Speed was something that was discovered in him early, being selected for Haig Park Primary School’s athletics team in grade three and four. Then when he switched to Hallingbury Primary for grade five to seven, Marira enjoyed racing against the school’s fastest pupil, a boy called Gordon Pangeti who years on came to attention as a Western Province Under-21 and Junior Springboks dashing winger. At Hallingbury, Marira also played football for the Colts and Under-12 teams, with high-jump and long-jump also part of his athletics activities.

So, for senior level, Ellis Robins’ great loss was a massive coup for Mutare Boys High, where Marira soon became the biggest sporting star and later a prefect adored by both peers and staff alike — one of the greatest sons of the school whose reputation quickly spread across the entire city like a wildfire. Breaking into the first team of just one discipline at a fairly competitive sporting school is a proud feat for a lot of people. But to do so in four foremost sports and excel in all of them — rugby, football, cricket and basketball in addition to track-and-field success — is freakish athletic ability seen in a privileged few.

Rugby and athletics were the ones to yield provincial colours for Marira, representing Manicaland Schools in both.A notable teammate of his for Manicaland was Mutare-born Jacques Leitao of local rivals Hillcrest College, later to become a legendary Zimbabwe rugby player with numerous caps for the national team as well as the distinction of captaining the country to Bowls trophy success at the 2009 Rugby World Cup Sevens.

In cricket, the highlight for Marira were the match-winning figures of 4-37 against Marlborough High after he opened the bowling for Mutare during a Zimbabwe National Secondary Schools Cricket Festival match at Prince Edward in 2002.

A single audacious move to wow the crowd in schools sport can earn one cult status, and get people talking about it for many years to come. For Marira, one such daring act was a two-handed dunk against provincial basketball power Hartzell High in 2001 to win a humdinger of a match for Boys’ High right at the death.

In track-and-field, Marira dazzled onlookers for Mutare Boys’ High both in individual sprint and sprint relay events as well as high-jump and triple-jump — sending many a record tumbling on the way. In 2002, he came third at triple-jump in Manicaland colours during athletics’ inter-provincial championships at Plumtree High School.

With these achievements in four years at Mutare Boys High, Marira collected full-colours in rugby, football and athletics as well as half-colours in basketball.

Not content with just competing against peers, Marira stepped up to club sport as early as 1999, a courageous leap of faith for a 16-year-old lad still developing his physique. When there were no school obligations, he played both rugby and cricket for the nearby Mutare Sports Club.
And then when he was at home in Harare during school holidays, Marira would feature for the University of Zimbabwe, then a minnow but dogged opposition in the country’s top-flight rugby league.

The self-motivation of the Varsity Rugby Club players and the admirable dedication of the coaches, even as the more established clubs hammered them week-in-week-out, was epitomised by such display of determination as a very young Marira walking from home in Cotswold Hills to the UZ campus for practice, and back.
Coached by one-time Zimbabwe Rugby Union (ZRU) administrator Ezra “Ziggy” Zigarwe and on occasion the late legendary development stalwart Joey Muwadzuri —both men the personification of selflessness — Varsity were in very capable hands, seen then as a shining example of the game’s growth in the country.
It was there that the gifted schoolboy first received quality coaching in senior rugby, although the contact with Muwadzuri is something to be viewed as a missed opportunity in retrospect.

Muwadzuri spent most of his coaching time at Harare’s Churchill Boys High School where his protégés included South Africa’s World Cup-winner Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira and ex-Zimbabwe captain Daniel Hondo.

Immensely impressed by Marira’s fine vision and playmaking skills at Varsity, reckoning he could transform him into an even better player, Muwadzuri had tried to convince the young flyhalf to move to Churchill for his ‘A’ Levels, so that he could be more involved in his rugby development.
This time around, Marira’s parents did not give the thumbs-up, concerned that another change of school would disrupt their son’s academic progress, which was quite satisfactory despite the countless hours spent on the sport fields. Finishing high school end of 2002 allowed Marira to concentrate on one sport for the first time in a long while. 2003 thus became his first full season as a club rugby player, but his last with Varsity. Without undivided attention and now under the well-regarded tutelage of Cyprian Mandenge at Varsity, Marira’s full range of rugby abilities came to the fore in the Lion Lager National League that season.

Coach Nsikelelo “Sykes” Sibanda drafted him into his Zimbabwe Under-21 side that year, making the starting line-up at Hartsfield in Bulawayo against a visiting Mpumalanga select team.

Marira, however, had to settle for a place at fullback. This was simply because the number 10 shirt was “private property” of the ex-Peterhouse maestro David Cloete, who had no competition in that position at that level.

Sibanda also made a positional change for his regular Harare Sports Club flyhalf Happy Nyatanga, selecting the former Churchill wizard at inside-centre for that game.

The tear-away Shepherd Zvazanewako—classmate of Marira and I in early senior school days — played on the left wing. The “Dzivaresekwa Express”, as I nicknamed him in reference to his home area and express pace, was beginning to make a strong case for national team selection when he migrated to the United Kingdom in 2005.

As for Marira, 2003 — his full-season debut — also saw him draw the attention of national selectors, for the first time, at the age of 20. He was named in an enlarged Sables squad for the three Tests scheduled for that year. But so badly did Marira want to become an international that he channeled his competitive streak the wrong way, his discipline letting him down and costing him dearly. At the trials in Bulawayo during a Possibles versus Probables match, he deliberately stepped on an opponent’s head five minutes into the contest and was shown a straight red-card.

That match is probably best remembered by those who witnessed it for being the occasion that unearthed a schoolboy speed freak from Churchill named Tangai Nemadire, who went on to enjoy a Test career as a genius fullback for Zimbabwe.

Coming from lowly Varsity Rugby Club—and with players from the better clubs always in front of the selection queue — Marira, however, had his back against the wall from the word go, especially for somebody barely out of his teens.

Signing for glamour club Old Hararians in 2004 therefore meant he could now get a fair crack of the whip from selectors.

Never one to shy away from competition, Marira did not take that long to cement his place in the Green Machine’s star-studded line-up. He impressed well enough in his debut OH season to be included in Zimbabwe’s squad for a World Cup qualifier away to rugby-mad islanders Madagascar in 2004.

A Sables side under Brighton Chivandire and captained by Costa Dinha lost the tie in Antananarivo during a time of turmoil at the top in Zimbabwean rugby.
The match ended as Marira stood impatiently on the touchline, about to replace Old Hararians club-mate Victor Zimbawo at flyhalf. The feeling when the referee blew to end the match at the Stade Municipal de Mahamasina was probably the same as when Lord Malvern’s swashbuckling young footballers tore his teammates apart in Kadoma only two years back and, just like this time, he could not do anything about it.

With that Madagascar trip went Marira’s only ever chance of becoming a Test rugby player. Although he was still only 21, the next Sables coach Chris Lampard had his own set of favourites, and Marira was never selected again.

Marira played for another season for Old Hararians in 2005, helping them reach the National League final during a dominant era for the Milton Park-based side. But after an opportunity arose to study medicine in Russia at the beginning of 2006, and disillusioned with the state of affairs in the game, Marira did not even turn up for that final — where Farai Shava-inspired Old Hararians defeated rivals Harare Sports Club to claim yet another title. In 2015, Marira graduated as a doctor from Russia’s Perm State Medical University, where he also played basketball for the varsity club. Back home in Zimbabwe, he worked briefly as a junior doctor at Harare Central Hospital.

Marira has, however, since left the job due to low pay and poor conditions, presently earning a living in Cape Town at the age of 37 out of something completely different: away from sports, his passion, and way from surgery, his qualifications.

Given an opportunity, though, ask Marira what he would rather be doing with his life between the two “S’es”. Make no mistake, it would be the first of the two.
l This story is excerpt from the writer’s memoirs: My Favourite Sports Stars.

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