HARARE - The Zimbabwe-Kenya Africa Cup clash last weekend at Prince Edward School’ Jubilee Filed drew one of the biggest rugby crowds (plus-minus 7 000) seen in recent years.
Only one thing was on their expectant mob-mind and would be acceptable - a win against the fast-rising, ambitious Simbas.
On the other hand, Kenya, buoyed by defeating Portugal in a one-off home test, were out to inflict pain by avenging an earlier 2015 World Cup qualifier defeat by Zimbabwe.
That reasonable crowd surely excited the Zimbabwe Rugby Union's (ZRU) tills, and by extension CEO Colleen de Jong, who was beaming from ear-to-ear all day.
The thousands certainly helped to exaggerate the bounce in her step. At that, this writer strongly argues that the rugby constituency, essentially, would cheerfully part with $10 per-head to enable the ZRU to accumulate more revenue in future encounters, starting against Tunisia on July 4.
The game must urgently consider adequately rewarding its biggest actors; the days of benefitting a schoolboy stipend to a national rugby player could be found, if you flicked backwards the pages of a well-worn rugby history manual. Sweating for chickenfeed was intolerable, demotivating and unacceptable.
It was fantastic to see in the buzzing crowd, local rugby's luminaries; former president Frank Putterill with his son James, a former national player, in tow; rugby's first black president, Tonderai "TK" Kadyautumbe, former captains Max Madziva, Costa Dinha, former livewire national Under 20 captain from the 90s, Enos Mbofana.
The Sports and Recreation Commission (SRC) did not disappoint, represented by functionaries Charles Nhemachena and Edward Siwela, both mingling happily with other dignitaries that included ambassadors of the EU, Canada, Britain, Australia and Tourism minister Walter Mzembi.
A person of no less stature than the revered former Springbok, Zimbabwean-raised Brian Mujati ceremoniously presented the reasonably storied, 120-year-old Zimbabwean rugby shirt to the Sables in their changing room before kick-off. Nice one, ZRU!
The match, broadcast live on ZBC TV and also on ZiFM Radio, started off at a frenetic pace with Kenya withstanding a flurry of dogged Zimbabwean attacks led from the first row by the workaholic captain, Denford Mutamangira.
Playmaker Tichafara Makwanya's decision-making and kicking were good, though like most of the Sables, looked gassed in the crucial dying stages of the match when Kenya started surging forward in search of points.
The Sables were tantalisingly just a try and converted penalty kick out-of-reach. Towards the end, the weary Makwanya was replaced by the equally impressive Lenience Tambwera.
A series of errors, chief of which was winger Tafadzwa Chitokwindo's unbelievable fumbling of the ball in the 35th min, when all he had to do was just dive over the line, a mere five meters away, allowed Kenya hope as they stayed within shouting distance of the otherwise gritty Zimbabwe.
A delicate 17-all score at half time hardly made for much confidence to carry over into the second half.
In the second stanza, Chitokwindo, thankfully, redeemed his earlier mistake by scoring an unconverted try and making fans breathe a little easier for what would be a final 28-20 to Zimbabwe.
Opinions will differ, but my man-of-the match, easily, was Makwanya for his frequent bootilicious clearance and crucial points on the board.
Flank Andrew Rose was a delightful colossus in forward play, ably supported by Mutamangira, who put in a workmanlike shift.
The smallest man in the field of daunting giants, scrumhalf Charles Jiji, was a beauty to watch with his slick passing.
Good result, but we cannot get way-ahead of ourselves; could Zimbabwe be strong again like the Rhodesia squads of the 60s and 70s; like the Zimbabwe of the 80s and 90s that even saw two World Cups in 1987 and 1991?
After missing out on World Cup 2015 due to a series of catastrophes that included an indifferent and bungling Minister of (no) Sports Andrew Langa, Zimbabwe would do well to start clawing their way up World Rugby rankings, with one eye firmly-fixed on World Cup 2019 qualification.
It's imperative that for that lofty mission to be realised, certain key fundamentals must be met. Last weekend's slugfest showed glimpses of the massive potential this side had.
The Sables coach Cyprian Mandenge certainly had a game plan; bombard Kenya relentlessly, via our more technically-adept forwards and finish off with our fast backs.
Or something like that! Zimbabwe will be re-tested by Tunisia; same venue, same tourney, on July 4.
Is coach Mandenge worthy of support? Yes-and-yes! The truth though is that the poor coach can only do so much.
As a nation, we either backed him up 100 percent, or we set him up for failure. An example of how-not-to-support would include the unfortunate "disturbances" to rock the Sables camp a few days before the match.
Whatever the reasons, such distraction served to take the eye off the ball.
The game in the modern era favoured the brave; the brave, in my book, would include the disciplined professionals that always did the right thing.
Does the Sables coach have a contract? Is he a full-time employee or a part-timer whose bread was buttered elsewhere?
Could he, at a moment's notice jump on the plane to go snoop on an international match elsewhere, with little fuss?
The manner we administered our squad; is that current best practice around the world? See, our results can only be matched by our ambition as Zimbabwe Rugby.
It is public knowledge that Kenyan preparations were top-rate. They even engaged and won against Portugal, days before the Zimbabwe clash.
Zimbabwe did "nothing", on the other hand. There was a need to play strong African sides like Namibia in a home/away series annually.
For good measure, rope in Portugal or Romania or some such other reasonably strong rugby nation for a tri-series.
We have even played Wales before, in Harare, at the National Sports Stadium in 1998! (Zim lost that match 48-11.)
The likes of Victor Olonga (fullback), John Ewing (second centre), Brendan French (centre), Russell Karimazondo (left wing), Kennedy Tsimba (fly half), Ryan Becker (Scrumhalf), Brendon Dawson (captain), Bhuru Mwerenga (flank), and a solid front row of one of my all-time favourite players, Gary Snyder together with Wayne Baratt and Graham Stewart starred.
Doug Trivella, one of the most gifted all-round athletes I have ever seen in independent Zimbabwe, sat on the bench.
Surely so-called 'A' sides, a rugby parlance denoting emerging talent of some of the much-stronger Unions, should frequent our shores annually.
Also, at the very least, Zimbabwe should play one overseas tour annually and host a minimum of say, four incoming tests. That's just a minimum!
The bottom line is that it's about more-and-more competitive game time and scouting the globe and bringing onboard the very best talent available for Zimbabwe.
Crucially, our rewards system must change; Zimbabwe must start compensating players reasonable numbers.
It's a Zimbabwean sport’s disease not recompensing your top athletes. It costs money for any sportsperson to keep themselves in tip-top condition; gym, personal trainers, supplements, good nutrition, physiotherapy, motivation etc.
Zimbabwe still had a long way to go. A facility with a better crowd-carrying capacity was needed for Harare; a Hartsfield of some sort but with a more-modern design.
PE, notwithstanding being an excellent host, was meant for schoolboy rugby. The National Sports Stadium, someone?
Lest we forgot, the Sables in the Bankfin Currie Cup days would draw plus-minus 30,000 fans to the old Police Grounds at Morris Depot.
But then, rugby in the 90s was scintillating stuff. Way-back-when Dave Walters and the irrepressible speed machine Olonga would play rugby good enough at home to defeat the British Barbarians at the Police Grounds watched by a crowd of tens of thousands.
Someone please institute a Recovery Plan. Quick! Evidently, it won't be the bungling Minister of (no) Sport, one out-of-sorts Andrew Langa.
Granted Government had critical life-and-death matters to superintendent, but please don't you tell me that rugby was a small, non-mattering constituency!
This writer believes it was time the biggest sport codes in Zimbabwe; most certainly the big three - football, cricket and rugby canvassed for and enjoyed a sizable annual Treasury grant each year, administered through the SRC.
I always like to give a mark for every effort; our rugby union, led by the CEO, who earlier in the week reportedly torched her own little storm in ordering the Zimbabwe camp broken, gets a fair mark for good organisation, a 6/10.
There was still lots of room for improvement. This writer is miffed at the failure to announce the man-of-the-match.
It is a standard do in most sport codes which presences a glorious opportunity to encourage one outstanding player.
It also is a chance to expose a sponsor's product, whilst a post-match press conference was even a better idea.
Let us strive for a Sables camp befitting our lofty ambition. Of course, Mandenge and his men could never escape scrutiny.
Was their game perfect? No. Did his men want a win? 100 percent. Do they look promising? Absolutely. A 6/10 for Mandenge and company would also be fair.
It is time; it was time we started compensating our players well.
In my book, each man doing duty for the Sables deserved a good pay day. Kenya reportedly promised $4 000 to each player for a win; just half that to each local player would be a rational pay day.
Much less would be (like football's one-time bad boy Moses Chunga’s infamous remark) "peanuts".
The Zimbabwe Rugby Centenary edition matter-of-factly states about the legendary Ian McIntosh; one of Rhodesian and Zimbabwean rugby's most-celebrated idols; "it is difficult to précis McIntosh's achievements but it can be said that he gave Rhodesian rugby new dimensions, created an enviable image, brought local rugby up-to-date with the latest scientific trends that were sweeping Britain at the time, and inspired the savouring taste of real success. He became the leading figure in an exciting era in which Rhodesia's players adopted more dedicated attitudes, their rugby displayed more finesse, and most importantly, they came to believe in themselves. His contribution to Zimbabwean rugby was immeasurable..."
The challenge is on for Mandenge to construct a squad that will develop household names like the Zimbabwe of the 80s and 90s that played at the World Cup back-to-back and produced bona fide local rugby stars; the likes of Dave Walters, Honeywell Nguruve, Ziv Dzinomurumbi, Evaristo Usayiwevu, Roger Moore, Adrian Garvey, Andy Ferreira, Alex Nicholls, Bedford Chimbima, Brendon Dawson, Brian Beattie, Gary Snyder, Ian Noble, Dave Kirkman etc.
Let it be said, hopefully, one day in the future that, just like Rhodesia’s Macintosh… “Mandenge's achievements gave Zimbabwean rugby new dimensions, created an enviable image, brought local rugby up-to-date with the latest scientific trends at the time, and inspired the savouring taste of real success. Mandenge became the leading figure in an exciting era in which Zimbabwean players adopted more dedicated attitudes, their rugby displayed more finesse, and most importantly, they came to believe in themselves. His contribution to Zimbabwean rugby was immeasurable...”
If not that, on the other hand, history has a consistent record of ruthlessness to incompetence and failure. We the people, the demanding rugby fans, just want success. Full stop.
*Maguranyanga is a former ZRU board member and a returning local rugby supporter.