Celebrating two of Zim's greatest sportsmen

HARARE - “A prophet has no honour in his own country” is an age old adage, but one that rings true in every sense to the Tsimba brothers, Richard and Kennedy.

It’s a pity few people in Zimbabwe appreciate the greatness of the Harare-born brothers, who last week became the first black men to be inducted into the International Rugby Board (IRB) Hall of Fame.

This wonderful achievement is undoubtedly a befitting honour for two of the finest sportsmen this country has ever produced, two greats whose exploits certainly compare favourably with such Zimbabwean sporting heroes of the modern era like Peter Ndlovu, Andy Flower and Kirsty Coventry.

Richard – who died 12 years ago in a car accident aged only 34 – was the first black rugby player to represent Zimbabwe at international level while his living younger brother, Kennedy, would years later become the first black man to captain his country.  

I unfortunately did not have the privilege of seeing Richard Tsimba in flesh, but those who watched him testify that the “Black Diamond”, as he was affectionately known, was as good as they come, a top-notch rugby player of great quality and technical ability.

When a Malcolm Jellicoe-captained Zimbabwe was invited along with other 15 countries to take part in the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987 co-hosted by Australia and New Zealand, Tsimba was not just the only black player in the Zimbabwe squad, but the whole tournament.

Zimbabwe’s opening match was against Romania on the hallowed turf of Eden Park, and Tsimba scored the Sables’ first try early in the first half before adding another in the second half, one of the best tries of the World Cup, to apparently put the African side on top.

Wrote Jonty Winch in the Zimbabwe Rugby Centenary 1895-1995: “Zimbabwe took an early lead (in the sixth minute) after Peter Kaulback had fielded a misdirected kick some forty metres from the Romanian line. The Zimbabwean right wing put up a high kick, chased after it, and collected the ball which bounced favourably for him between two Romanian defenders. He then dummied one way and passed the other, enabling Rchard Tsimba to score in the corner.

“Zimbabwe continued to apply pressure and little more than 10 minutes the forwards drove downfield most effectively to set up a second try. A series of forwards thrusts, which began on the half-way line, ended with eighthman, Mark Neill, riding a tackle to record the touchdown. The conversion failed, but both sides kicked penalties, for Zimbabwe to lead 11-3 at the interval.

“The second half began with Zimbabwe giving away two penalties but then kicking one of their own (14-9). The game was evenly poised with Zimbabwe clinging on to their lead and the Romanians striving to gain the ascendancy. Yet it was the Zimbabweans who scored next, producing one of the finest tries of the 24 pool matches. Eric Barrett collected the ball on the half-way line and flipped it over an opponent’s head to his flyhalf, Craig Brown. The latter slipped through a tackle and eluded another before sending Richard Tsimba on his way. In a searing fifty-metre dash for the line Tsimba escaped the attentions of four opponents to score in dramatic fashion under the posts. His triumphant “victory roll” signalled a specular try that gained repeated television coverage around the world, but it also saw him leave the field with strained ligaments in his shoulder.

“Andy Ferreira converted the try to establish a 20-9 lead and, with only 12 minutes remaining, Zimbabwe had a wonderful opportunity to win the match. Unfortunately it was not to be. “

History recorded that Zimbabwe narrowly and agonisingly lost 21-20.

The African side went on to lose heavily to Scotland and France in their remaining two pool matches, but emerged from the tournament with their dignity intact.

Tsimba won more test caps for Zimbabwe after the World Cup, including at the inaugural All-Africa Rugby Cup in in 1989 when he and Mark Niell scored five tries apiece in the demolition of minnow Nigeria.  

After winning an Africa Zone qualification tournament in 1990, Zimbabwe were back at the World Cup in 1991, co-hosted by Britain and France. This time around, in a Sables team captained by back Brian Currin, Tsimba was joined by three other players of colour in Ellimon “Bedford” Chimbima, Honeywell Nguruve and Milton Nyala.

Zimbabwe lost all pool matches comprehensively to Ireland, Scotland and Japan in as disappointing tournament for the Africans, but Tsimba scored a brilliant try in the Japan tie, his last game in the green-and-white hoops of the Sables.

While this was Zimbabwe’s last appearance at the World Cup, for one particularly player it was not. Powerful Bulawayo-born front-row Adrian Garvey would four years later help South Africa’s Springboks win their first ever World Cup title, in the process becoming the first and only man to represent two different countries in the Rugby World Cup.

Richard Utete Tsimba died in a car crash in 2000 along Chiremba Road in Harare on his way from a round of golf, which he had taken a liking to following retirement from rugby.

Richard’s legacy was carried on by Kennedy’s good deeds, which at one stage earned him the world’s best flyhalf status.  

In his pomp, Kenny became a rugby force close to unstoppable; a Dan Carter or Jonny Wilkinson without a decent national team.

Kennedy Tsimba made his name playing for the Currie Cup-winning Cheetahs in the late 90s and early 2000s ... and became something of a cult hero in the Free State. He was considered the best flyhalf in South Africa.

Once considered amongst the best flyhalves in the world, Kennedy became the first black player to captain Zimbabwe when he took over from current Sables captain Brendan Dawson in 1998.

Prior to become Sables captain, Tsimba had led a Zimbabwe Sevens side at the 1998 Sevens Cup in Hong, where his leadership skills shone through.
I had the privilege as an Ellis Robins schoolboy of watching Tsimba is his debut game as Sables captain when Zimbabwe hosted a strong Wales team at the National Sports Stadium in Harare in 1998. The most prominent name in that Welsh touring squad was Dafydd James, a veteran of 48 caps who also featured three times for the British & Irish Lions.  

 Kennedy signed off in 1999 with four Sables caps to his name, but his silky skills still had a platform on which to shine at club and provincial level. In 1997 Kennedy’s career took him to the UK, where he enjoyed a brief spell at Bath as understudy to RWC 2003 winner Mike Catt.

 A product of the Prince Edward School in Harare, a conveyor belt of rugby talent, Kennedy really came to prominence when he moved to South Africa where, at his peak, he was peerless.

 He played Super 12 rugby for the Blue Bulls, producing many stellar performances. But the dazzling fly half reserved his best rugby for the Bloemfontein-based Cheetahs, breaking a Free State record for the most points scored in a season (228), a feat which earned him the Currie Cup Player of the Year award in 2002.

 He received the same honour again in 2008. ‘The King of Bloemfontein’ – as he was affectionately known – holds the South African record for fastest player in first class history to reach 1,000 points.

 Kennedy spent the twilight of his illustrious career at Griffons, before finally hanging up his boots in 2011 to concentrate on coaching, charitable work and his second love – music.

 Besides his coaching job at Impala Sports, Tsimba founded the South African branch of a non-governmental organisation called ‘Rugby Without Borders’ that touches on the lives of the less fortunate.

 The Tsimba name also lives on in rugby through his niece Aisha, the chairperson of Zimbabwe Women’s Rugby.

*Additional reporting by IRB.

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