MARK Spencer — a naturalised Qatari who hails from the United States of America — is recognised in the Guinness World Records as the oldest man to ever play international rugby after featuring in a single match for the Persian Gulf nation against Uzbekistan in 2012, aged 57.
For Zimbabwean Willard Muchena, the dream of ever becoming a Test rugby player is long gone, put to rest some 20 or so years ago.But now at the age of 50, one of the best Zimbabwean rugby players of his generation, never to represent his country, is still not only playing competitive club rugby: Muchena has backed himself to add an extra five years, or more.
“Another five years are definitely doable and if I don’t pick up an injury, I will see if I still have energy to continue playing after turning 55,” Muchena tells IndependentSport this week.
“I still want to play. We will see how it goes as the years unfold. I still feel strong at 50, although the energy levels tend to dwindle as the years go by.”
One-club man Muchena personifies loyalty. The year 2020 would have been his 31st season with top Zimbabwean club Old Hararians (OH) had it not been for the coronavirus outbreak that has brought sport worldwide to a grinding halt.
The first of his two children was not yet born when Muchena first joined OH three decades ago straight from the famed Prince Edward School.
Now, the veteran loose forward has stayed long enough in the game to be teammates with his son Tinashe Muchena for OH’s second team, a unique feat for the two men.
Another feather in the cap for the family is that both father and son had the distinction of being rugby first-team captain and headboy at Zimbabwe’s two oldest boy schools.
Willard Muchena held the two treasured positions at Prince Edward in 1989. Then Tinashe was the 2016 headboy at fellow Harare school, St George’s College — the biggest traditional rival of his dad’s alma mater — captaining rugby, basketball and athletics.
The former Zimbabwe youth international, who turns 23 this year, is currently on a rugby scholarship at Lindenwood University in the US where he is studying information technology, web-design and graphics.
As for the older Muchena, the highest level he reached in rugby was playing for Zimbabwe Under-23, as well as multiple appearances for a strong Mashonaland provincial side between 1994 and 1999.
Even in his prime, Muchena, however, always found himself behind the queue for national team selection in a department that Zimbabwe is historically spoilt for choice — the back row — and he concedes that such brilliant loose forwards as Brendan Dawson, Chris Botha, Milton Nyala and Dave Kirkman made it very tough for him to break through.
Dawson, the country’s current coach, and Botha, played for Zimbabwe at the 1991 World Cup in Britain and France while the late Nyala was a travelling reserve for that tournament.
Muchena has held several roles at OH for an uninterrupted 30-year period, claiming several titles with the glamour Harare club, which he fondly calls his “second home”.
As a senior player in a star-studded National League-winning squad of 2003, Muchena also doubled as the assistant coach under head coach John Falkenberg.
He would eventually take over as the gaffer from Falkenberg in 2004 at the age of 34. Unable to curb the appetite of taking to the park every Saturday, Muchena made himself player-coach, winning his first and only championship as a mentor that year.
After stepping down in glory as the Green Machine’s coach at the end of that season, Muchena — ever keen to share his wealth of experience with the club’s up-and-coming players — relinquished all first-team responsibilities and has been an ever-present player in the second-team squad ever since.
So from being an OH first-team player between 1990 and 2004, Muchena has also served the club tremendously as a regular member of the second-team from 2005 to 2019. The budding stars of Old Hararians, of course, just love playing alongside the grand old man of this great club, learning the tricks of the trade.
And if you add the six years of senior school at Prince Edward, where Muchena was first introduced to the sport, it means he has pretty much never stopped playing rugby for 36 years!
Prince Edward holds a special place in his heart, the place where it all started, and these days Muchena chairs the 122-year-old school’s Old Boys Association. But Old Hararians has been a home away from home for Muchena, for more than half his life.
“OH is a place I call my second home,” he says. “I have played rugby there for the past 30 years and always celebrate the enormous success we enjoyed in the ’90s right through to the new millennium, at both first and second-team level. I always look forward to play for the second team as well as the annual match that is played between South Africa Legends and Zimbabwe Legends.”
The Old Hararians stalwart features regularly for the Zimbabwe Legends team. The last time they engaged their South African counterparts was in a 2019 curtain-raiser for the Super Rugby tie between Sharks and Hurricanes at Kings Park in Durban.
Muchena is the epitome of fitness, an athlete whose incredible physical condition is greatly admired by men much younger. His passion for conditioning has also turned him into an instructor in that field. He takes fitness classes every Tuesday at his beloved home club.
Staying in great shape has obviously contributed to Muchena’s longevity in a very physically demanding sport. But there are other factors, too.
“What has kept me going throughout all these years is self-discipline and making fitness a way of life,” Muchena says. “I train at least three to four times a week to stay healthy and keep my body in shape. The advice I would like to give to the younger players is to do an honest job during their training sessions and on the field of play. Ensure that every tackle, every challenge, every contest count! Remember to be always humble in victory and gracious in defeat. All great people fall 100 times, but they get up and soldier on until they achieve their desired goal. Never give up!”
Muchena is one of the gentlest people you will ever come across, known for an infectious smile that seldom fades. But if he is at a rugby game and you turn up drunk, become rowdy and cause trouble, he might volunteer to do everybody the favour of escorting you to your seat. He holds a karate 3rd dan black belt!