A FOOTBALL player and swimmer for almost his entire high school life, a change in interests brought Sanele Sibanda to rugby in his final year at Plumtree School.
Little did we know that the change of sporting code was the beginning of great things to come from the ever-smiling Sanele, fittingly nicknamed “Smiley” because of that ever-beaming face.
He instantly broke into our Plumtree first XV, a team affectionately known as Amabhubesi (a pride of lions).In that same year, 2008, Smiley was selected to represent Matabeleland Under-18A in trials for a berth in the Zimbabwe Schools team for Craven Week in South Africa. He did not make the cut for Zim Schools, but while that was some kind of setback in his newly-chosen sport, the failure did not deter Smiley.
Fast forward. Smiley found himself playing for the great club Old Miltonians (OMs) in the 2009 National Rugby League.His biggest and proudest achievement was being selected for Zimbabwe’s national team, representing the Sables for nine years as a tenacious lock forward.
For a player who has not played rugby for a long time, it was quite an accomplishment when Sanele made his Test debut for Zimbabwe in the Africa Cup in 2010, barely out of his teens.
Our greatest sporting success together was last year when we helped the Sables lift the Victoria Cup, a four-team event against Kenya, Uganda and Zambia.
Smiley was somehow on a journey and after OMs he had gone on to play for quite a few more clubs in his career — another in Zimbabwe, three in South Africa, and one in England. These were Matabeleland Busters, Durban Harlequins, College Rovers RFC, Sharks Club XV and Hull RFC.
Apart from Plumtree and the Sables, I teamed up with Smiley in South Africa for College Rovers and Sharks Club XV, both clubs being a selection of the top players on the KwaZulu-Natal club rugby scene, with the two sides competing in a national championship against teams from different provinces.
Sanele’s work ethic was unquestionable and his rise to the top bears testimony to it. He was a thoroughly honest person who would be the first to acknowledge his own below-par performance on the field. He would not beat himself up for it, but would work harder to fix the shortcomings on his next outing.
The Sanele that I knew personally was a loyal friend and good sportsman. At school, he attained provincial colours in swimming for Matabeleland, and I had the greatest pleasure of playing alongside him in two sports: rugby and football.
In football, we were both goalkeepers. Football was his main second-term sport for most of his Plumtree days, while my passion was in the oval-ball game, rugby.
But once Sanele turned to rugby, everything changed. From the first time he graced the Kabot Field donning Amabhubesi’s red-and-green jersey, he was a beast on the park. And he would just smile in amazement because opponents were running away from him on the field. Coming from soccer, he could not believe that he could quickly become such a feared rugby player, so it made him smile even wilder!
His cheerful demeanour was what many people knew Smiley for, but a selfless attitude towards life and people around him also defined who he was.
I have lost a brother, a schoolmate, a playmate, a teammate and another pea in a pod. The news of his passing was heart-wrenching, and deeply painful. From the fields of Plumtree to the international stadiums, we trudged along together.
Sanele, you have put smiles and brought joy to many a people that you came across in this journey of life, your course on it is complete and you deserve to rest now.
Sanelele Nkosana Sibanda was born in Bulawayo on August 9 in 1990 and departed on May 1 in 2020 in Hull City, England, tragically taken away from us in a horrific car crash.
You will be missed, my brother, in the dressing room and everywhere you passed through. Till we meet again, rest easy, big man!
Tshamala was Zimbabwe’s vice-captain in five Test matches last year. He played alongside Sibanda across three levels since school, and wrote this tribute for this publication.