Secrets of a 'Supa' coach

HARARE - Only last month he was part of a committee that sealed the fate of sacked Zimbabwe cricket coach Stephen Mangongo, but newly-appointed rugby gaffer Cyprian “Supa” Mandenge wasn’t quite ready to take cover as he begin his own journey of challenges as a national coach.

The cricket side had been well and truly beaten on tour of Bangladesh, brutally whitewashed in all three Tests and five ODIs, and senior players had upon return home heavily censured the coach’s conduct and tactics on tour in a damning report submitted to the cricket committee Mandenge is a member of.

The committee recommended the immediate removal of the coach, leaving the board with no option but to fire Mangongo with just few weeks remaining before the World Cup begin in Australasia.

And now the newly-appointed Zimbabwe rugby coach feels his experience at cricket, and in particular the Mangongo episode, stands him in good stead as he take over the reins from Brendan Dawson as new Sables coach.

“What I’ve learnt in sports is that you need a happy team environment to succeed as a coach,” Mandenge tells the Daily News.

“Players play a critical role. They are the ones that go onto to the park. They are the ones who make you a good coach.”

He does accept collective responsibility for Mangongo’s dismissal without guilt, bold enough to see that sort of action as a hazard that can also befall him in his new role as a national team coach.  

“It was not my personal decision (to fire Mangongo), but when you sit on a committee you become part of the decision. The thing is…when people say Supa (his nickname) hasn’t delivered to expectation then why keep him there? As a coach, you are given KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) to work with. If Supa fails to meet those KPIs, why keep him? You have to know your KPIs, if you don’t accept your KPIs then don’t take the job. The national team is a team for the nation, it’s not personal property. We all wish for its success. It doesn’t matter who is the coach. 

“The most important thing is to set realistic goals for yourself. In rugby for example, you can’t just wake up one day and say you want to beat South Africa. You are guided by your own targets and the KPIs. You must be able to say I found the team at this level, and I’ve taken it there. The country is watching, the country wants results.”

Cricket, unlike rugby, is not a sport Mandenge played and knows proficiently, but his contribution has been sufficient enough to catapult to his rise to board member of Zimbabwe Cricket few years back.

“I’m a sportsman through and through, that’s why I am sports director here at Eaglesvale High,” Mandenge says. 

“Cricket was not big at my school (Morgan High), but we played social cricket. When I played rugby at Old Malvernians, I had friends who played cricket for the cricket section of the club. So when I wasn’t busy with the rugby I started helping out on the management side, helping recruit young boys from Mbare and preparing wickets for weekend games. I rose to become secretary general of the club and started attending Mashonaland Cricket Association AGMs. I became MCA board member, later the province’s chairman, and eventually the ZC board.”

He has since left the ZC board, but Mandenge still sits on the Mashonaland Eagles board and is chairman of Harare Metropolitan Cricket Association in addition to his day job as sports director at Harare’s Eaglesvale High School.

Growing up in Waterfalls, Mandenge also tried a hand at boxing and karate as a youngster. But it is rugby which was his first love, developing, after injury cut short his playing career 14 years ago, into a gifted coach highly-rated in the fraternity and good enough in the eyes of many to land the national team coaching post just a month shy of his 40th birthday.

He cut his teeth at Old Malvernians Rugby Club in Waterfalls, which included mostly old students of Lord Malvern High School in the suburb.

The founding coach of Malvernians was none other than sportsman-turned-Zanu PF politician Temba Mliswa, then a robust rugby enthusiast fronting a fierce drive for a radical package of measures to racially integrate the sport at that time.

“Temba is one guy who encouraged me,” he says. “Growing up in the same neighbourhood, in Waterfalls, we looked up to him as a sportsman of note. He was also my boxing and karate trainer. He encouraged me to play rugby. He’s one guy who leads by example. He will not ask you to do what he can’t do.”

At Malvernians, Mandenge played alongside such players as Dereck Chiwara (also a competent cricketer), Arthur Musikavanhu and Alec Chiromo. Forwards Chiwara and Musikavanhu would later turn out for another development black club Chimurenga, and then Harare Sports Club.

In the late 90s, Mandenge joined powerhouse Harare Sports Club, then a star-studded outfit holding sway in Zimbabwe’s national league together with city rivals Old Georgians and Old Hararians as well as Bulawayo giants Old Miltonians.

A diminutive hooker at the time, he immediately broke into the Under-21 side and played for two seasons before graduating into the first team.

“It was a bit scary,” he says. “When I graduated into the first team, I almost quit rugby because of my size. I felt I was too small. I had to compete for the number 2 jersey with Wayne Barrett and Dave Captopolous, who were both playing hooker for Zimbabwe. I felt I had no chance. I was then encouraged by (former Sports Club and Zimbabwe centre) John Ewing because I wanted to cheat my way back to the Under-21s so I could play hooker. He (Ewing) said ‘you got speed and you are a good tackler, try play flank’. So I started training with the first team as a flank. The established flanks at the club were Johnny Du Randt, Gideon Du Randt, and Losson Mtongwiza was also competing for a place in the loose trio. There was also Scooby McMillan.

“After my first training with the first team, Johnny couldn’t play. We were supposed to play OMs (Old Miltonians) at OMs, and I was chosen to play. Playing against OMs on my debut was something special for me, and one of their flanks, Brendan Dawson, was the national team captain.

“And then a lot of senior players left, and I started getting game time much more consistently. It became my permanent position. Losson, Taya (Chakarisa) and a guy called Joey Muwadzuri were now part of the technical set-up.

“I also got to play wing, and when we went to Zambia for a tournament I was fielded at centre and scrumhalf. We were incredibly fit, and versatile. I remember one game in Bulawayo, the two flankers, me and Gideon Du Randt, ended up playing centre.”

A shoulder injury during a Sevens tournament in 2001 effectively ended his career, thus his journey as a coach started.

“I was tackled by Gerald Chinyani. He hit me…it was a good tackle, but I landed heavily on my shoulder and that was it. I was also doing karate so I didn’t want to expose the shoulder to further injury.”

He immediately turned to coaching, in in 2002-03 he was recommended by long-serving Harare Sports Club coach Nsikelelo “Sykes” Sibanda to newly-formed University of Zimbabwe side Varsity as head coach.

In 2004, he returned to HSC, where he became co-coach with Sibanda, and later on the club introduced a rotational system where coaches took turns, each season, to coach. Several titles were won by the club, and an array of red-hot Zimbabwean rugby talent such as Daniel Hondo, Jacques Leitao, Willis Magasa, Denford Mtamangira, Happy Nyatanga, Shingi Mpofu, Tangai Nemadire, Gerald Sibanda and in more recent times, Stephan Hunduza, Shayne Makombe and Teddy Hwata – were nurtured.

He coaching skills were evident early on, and in 2006 as a young coach of just 30 years he had his first national team breakthrough after sitting on the Sables bench for two World Cup qualifiers in Harare against Uganda and Senegal.

Both Sables head coach Chris Lampard and his assistant Zivanai Dzinomurumbi were based in Bulawayo, so Mandenge was tasked with coaching the Harare-based contingent of the Sables in preparation for the two ties.

Zimbabwe won both tests and Old Georgians and Prince Edward School, but were unable to qualify for the World Cup.

In the later years, Mandenge became assistant coach to Brendan Dawson, and was part of the team that came a try away from qualifying for this year’s edition of the World Cup in England.

“Obviously that was disappointing,” Mandenge, who has recently bene in charge of Old Hararians, says. “I feel for both the players and the union, they put in a lot of work under very difficult conditions. It was heart-breaking not to qualify, but we need to learn from our mistakes. We’ve started looking into the future after we lost to Russia in the Repacharge play-offs. We have structures in place now. There is positive vibe in the game. The players, the union, the fans – everyone is hungry for success.”

Confident of his abilities as he is, Mandenge however places great value in brain picking, and wants to surround himself with expert advisers.  

“Ja, just like every other coach, I don’t know everything,” he says. “There are a lot of good coaches in this country, I and I will go to them. Not just senior coaches, you can learn something from a junior coach even. I want to involve everyone, the different stakeholders, everyone. Because this is a country’s project. This is our flagship team. I will include everyone. I can’t do it alone.

“Yes, I am the head coach and I am confident I can achieve results. If I didn’t feel I was the right man for the job I wouldn’t have applied. I’ve been through the structures of rugby in this country. Schoolboy rugby, provincial, club rugby and I was Under-21 assistant coach under Sykes.

“But I will listen to everyone.

“I’m surrounded by people with a lot of knowledge. Jaws (former Sables coach Godwin Murambiwa) is around, even the director of rugby (Brighton Chivandire) is a coach himself, Sykes too, John Ewing. People like Costa (Dinha, the former Sables captain), who is good with line-outs. Ask him to try help.”

Mandenge’s first assignment is the Rugby Africa Group 1A tournament in June, where the Sables will aim to reclaim their African title, wrestled by Namibia last year on their way to World Cup qualification.

“Obviously, the first and foremost thing to do is to get a database of players, getting guys to raise up their hands for their country. We have the Africa Cup coming up in June, and in the short term the goal is to go and win that one. That’s the starting point. We need to get into a habiting of winning. We need to start by removing the mentality that we cannot beat the Namibians. Even the teams we have been beating, we need to maintain that record. We beat Kenya last year. We’ve always been beating them, they would want revenge. We must work hard.”

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