Race storm leaves Zim rugby counting losses

HARARE - Zimbabwe has been dealt a massive blow in the country’s quest to qualify for the 2015 World Cup after an unnamed European national team cancelled a three-match tour here following publication in the local press of alleged racism in the game.

These claims were made this week by Zimbabwe Rugby Union (ZRU) director of rugby, Liam Middleton, who had used his decade-long familiarity with European rugby structures to secure the tour.

ZRU had targeted five competitive warm-up matches for the Sables ahead of the World Cup qualifiers in Madagascar in June and July. The European side was lined up to play three tests on a month-long tour of the African country, two in Harare and one in Bulawayo. The Sables would them move to South Africa towards the Madagascar trip to play two more games against provincial sides.

And with a pending sponsorship deal from a leading telecommunications company reportedly scuttled by the damaging racism storm, even the South Africa trip has not been confirmed, promoting fears from Middleton that Zimbabwe will be awfully underprepared in Madagascar.

“Our strategy was very clear, I wrote a report last December to the ZRU on plans for the qualifiers,” Middleton told the Daily News.

“The programme was primarily based on a high-performance training programme in Harare, and regular camps in Bulawayo.

“There was going to be an incoming tour to Zimbabwe by a European team for three test matches, two in Harare and one at Hartsfield (in Bulawayo). We would then go to South Africa for two matches against provincial sides there. That was going to provide perfect preparations. Everything was all under control. I had spent a great deal of time using my links, talking to the people at the Rugby Football Union at Twickenham. But when the racism thing emerged, the European side pulled out.

“I was very disappointed with what I thought was irresponsible reporting. Because of that, we decided to increase our tour to South Africa to three games.

“I have had positive discussions with the unions in South Africa. We are planning to tour for two weeks and then travel to Madagascar from South Africa. But the only one thing we don’t have is sponsorship. We can’t do so without sponsors.”

Besides a development-oriented grant from the International Rugby Board (IRB), the ZRU hardly has any major funding coming through. And despite the national side’s wonderful opportunity to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in more than two decades, the Sables are without an official sponsor three months before the crucial qualifiers.

“Basically the IRB provide money in the form of a grant, but that money is ring-fenced,” said Middleton.

“It has to go to specific areas. A lot of it is development; a lot of it is women. There is no money for the national team.  Currently, there is no sponsor for the Sables. Right now even that South Africa tour is not certain. Fortunately, there has been positive calls from South Africa-based players playing tough Vodacom Cup rugby who haven’t had a chance of playing for us in the past and have been saying to us ‘we are aware of great things happening back home, we wanna come play.’

“I fear if we don’t play three games we will be terribly underprepared for what is going to be a very difficult tournament.”

The winner of the qualification tournament, involving hosts Madagascar, Namibia, Kenya and Zimbabwe will automatically take Africa’s sole qualification slot at the World Cup in England next year.

Kenya are currently playing in the Vodacom Cup in South Africa in preparation for the qualifiers.

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