IN 2023 France will host the tenth edition of the rugby World Cup. Twelve teams have already qualified for the showpiece event courtesy of finishing in the top 3 of their respective pools at the 2019 competition played in Japan.
Led by the reigning world champions South Africa, these nations include the southern hemisphere trio of New Zealand, Australia and Argentina — all of who will have realistic designs on the Webb Ellis Cup. The Northern hemisphere charge will be led by the hosts France, their arch-rivals England, Wales, Ireland, Scotland and Italy. The elite class is completed by the Pacific Ocean island nations of Japan and Fiji.
Zimbabwe will attempt to be amongst the eight teams that will complete the pack for the twenty-team tournament. The Sables will have to run the gauntlet through a qualification process that World Rugby says has been designed, “to deliver the top teams in the world to rugby’s showcase tournament, while promoting a genuine opportunity for all unions”.
To qualify, they must win the 2022 Rugby Africa Cup which will act as the final qualifying tournament to select one of the teams that will join South Africa as Africa’s two representatives in France. Only the top team will automatically qualify for the tournament while the runner-up will have a second crack at the whip at a repechage tournament against teams from other continents.
Unsurprisingly, the Zimbabwe Rugby Union (ZRU) harbours hopes of competing at a third Rugby World Cup. The Sables have proud association with the tournament that stretches to the inaugural edition in 1987 where Zimbabwe was one of the original 16 participating nations in New Zealand winning many admirers for their pluck and spirit. The late Richard Tsimba, rightfully nicknamed “the Black Diamond” for his sparkling performances, was the undoubted star of the team. His second try in the 21-20 defeat to Romania at Eden Park was the highlight of the Sables’ campaign.
Tsimba received the ball just inside his own half, put on the after-burners and with effortless ease slalomed past several attempted tackles to score a try that was arguably every bit as good as any seen at the tournament.
Though Zimbabwe went on to suffer a heavy defeat to Scotland and another mauling at the hands of France in their remaining pool matches, it did not sully the experience of rubbing shoulders with the world’s finest players and left a lasting impression on members of the team who had taken part in the pilgrimage to rugby’s Mecca.
It was that inspiration that the next generation of players needed to qualify for the next tournament held in the British Isles and France. Zimbabwe duly qualified, but in 1991 the Sables failed to hit the heady heights reached in New Zealand, coming nowhere near causing an upset or capturing the imagination and it would be the last time the Sables graced the grand stage.
And who would have thought that 25 years later, the Sables would still be waiting to make a third appearance at the world cup? Botched campaign after campaign has been the story of Zimbabwe rugby, with glaring inadequacies revealed both on and off the field. It is an ignominious failure that needs correcting and it seems the ZRU has finally pulled finger and are willing to put in the work and collective organisation needed for Zimbabwe to return to the top table of international rugby.
While questions remain around the competence and integrity of the union’s executive, the same aspersions cannot be cast on the brains-trust they have assembled for “Mission Paris”. The union has put together a technical team headed by former national team captain Brendan Dawson who is in his second stint as head coach after narrowly missing out on qualifying for the 2015 World Cup held in England.
Tasked with breaking the Sables’ qualification jinx, Dawson has the added motivation of joining a select group of individuals who have played and coached at a Rugby World Cup — Rassie Erasmus and Martin Johnson spring to mind. Dawson will be assisted by Liam Middleton, Danny Hondo and Graham Knoop with Alice Randall coming in as physio and Jason Maritz the team manager, a team many believe has the wherewithal and technical nous to plot Zimbabwe’s passage to France.
Zimbabwe’s Victoria Cup triumph in 2019, which saw the Sables beat Kenya and Uganda enroute to lifting the trophy, came as a morale booster and an indicator that Zimbabwean rugby was moving in the right direction and may have a realistic chance of qualifying for its first Rugby World Cup tournament of the professional era.
The talent is there, but success can only be achieved if it’s complimented by an executive that’s willing to match the graft on the training ground with professionalism and sound planning off it. Zimbabwe-born David Pocock, named by World Rugby as one of the finest players of the last decade has voiced his support for the ZRU’s qualification initiatives and pledged his technical input, the ultimate endorsement from a globally respect figure which has brought confidence and added credibility to the union’s efforts.
As Zimbabweans rally behind the Sables, united in the desire to see the likes of Hilton Mudariki mixing it with the best in 2023, the ZRU cannot afford to squander the goodwill that’s coming their way. They owe it to the likes of Jason Robertson and Tapiwa Mafura who have pledged allegiance to Zimbabwe. They owe it to Biselele Tshamala and Shayne Makombe who have been in the trenches in good times and bad. They owe it to the fans who have waited in vain and suffered pain, campaign after campaign. They owe it to the Class of ’87 who paved the way and made the rest of the world sit up and take notice. But above all, they owe it to the likes of T.J. Maguranyanga and the next generation who need the inspiration and convincing that the Sables jumper is worth their time and effort.