How Zim shaped SA rugby

HARARE - Although the Springboks have won two Rugby World Cup titles, there is little doubt that Zimbabwe has helped shape South African rugby over the decades.

So many international stars from the then Rhodesia and later independent Zimbabwe have crossed the Limpopo to go and earn legendary status in the green and gold of the Springboks.

One such player is former Springboks centre and fullback Ian Robertson, who horned his skills in the then Rhodesia at prince Edward School and later on Old Hararians before joining the great trek.

Described by former All Blacks skipper Ian Leslie as the Springboks’ best backline player, Robertson sadly passed away in August 2015, after a battle with leukaemia.

There is a long list of ex-Rhodesians or Zimbabweans, who have walked the same path as Robertson, which comprises Bob Skinstad, Ray Mordt, Ryk van Schoor, Gary Teichmann, Des van Jaarsveldt, Chris Rogers, Andy MacDonald and Adrian Garvey.

In recent years, Brian Mujati and Tonderai Chavhanga have earned South African caps while Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira has become in his own right a Springbok legend.

With 87 Springbok tests under his belt, Mtawarira is now the team’s most capped prop, taking the mantle from two-time World Cup winner Os du Randt, who retired on 80.

Former Junior Sables lock Eli Synman is poised to keep the trend continuing after representing the junior Springboks at last year’s World Rugby Under-20 Championship in Manchester, England.

Mordt, who scored a hat-trick for the Springboks against the All Blacks in 1981, was a guest on the SuperSport magazine show Phaka and talked about the positive influence Zimbabwe has had on South African rugby.         

The 60-year-old wing, who represented South Africa in 18 tests, credited the strong school and club systems in Zimbabwe for producing good rugby players. 

“It’s a lovely environment to grow up in; I can understand why we get so many great sportspersons not only in the game of rugby but in other sports as well,” Mordt said.  

“The education system was good, the schools we were amazing and right up until this day; our schools are the best in Africa.

“In my years we formed a very much family like camp and when we used to go down to play at the Police Grounds there used to come a capacity crowd of about 20 000.”

Mordt added: “It was just amazing to be there. Our club system was very strong back. When I finished school at Churchill, I went to play for Sports Club those days which is now called Harare Sports Club.

“I ended up going to the club where the Prince Edward boys went to — Old Hararians — I was a bit of a traitor there but the club system was good. All the youngsters during the amateur days had somewhere to go when they left school but it has changed drastically today.

“Back then it was all white, the composition of the team when we played; at the national team, the schools and the clubs as well.”

Although he never represented the Springboks, Kennedy Tsimba is probably one of Zimbabwe’s greatest exports to South Africa.

The former Sables flyhalf, who was inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame in 2012, is one of the pioneering black players to make a breakthrough in Currie Cup and Super Rugby for a South African side.   

Now more black South Africans are excelling in rugby after having been inspired by the likes of Tsimba, Mtawarira, Mujati, and Chavhanga.

“Talent will never go away; it’s like a tree that keeps on growing even if you cut off a branch another one keeps on growing,” Tsimba said of the Zimbabwe player conveyer belt.

“That’s how Zimbabwean rugby talent keeps on growing. Even to this day as we speak, if you watch some of our Under 13s and the Craven Week teams; there is just so much talent in abundance.”

Tsimba got into rugby by default after he was inspired by his late brother Richard, who represented and scored for the Sables at both the 1987 and 1991 Rugby World Cups. 

“When I was growing up, I used to play other different kind of sports because rugby was not something that I really understood since it was an elite white man’s sport,” Tsimba said.

“When we started playing rugby, it was just pure natural talent because we weren’t coached in an academy like we do nowadays. It was just raw talent, my brother got onto the field and he was just able to have that natural instinct in rugby.

“When he started asking us to go into the backyard and tell us to stand there and try tackle him, we would ask ‘what’s that?’

“Me and my other brother, he (Richard) would just side step us and I would just think to myself what is this guy doing?”

Tsimba is currently working on a documentary based on his life chronicling how he arrived in Bloemfontein as a nonentity before working to his way up to become a Cheetahs legend.

“It was just more of a dream of wanting to play rugby. In Zimbabwe I was living under my brother’s cloud because everyone was just saying he’s playing because he’s Richard younger brother and he’s not that good,” Tsimba said.

“There was also a notion that I was not big enough and I just decided to grab my boots and back to go somewhere else I could prove myself as a no name brand.

“That story will be revealed much later in the documentary but it was just a wonderful experience and only now when I reflect on my career I then realise how much of a challenge it was.

“I couldn’t speak Afrikaans; I couldn’t hear any of my teammates but rugby brought us together and we were able to play in an expansive way.”

While Zimbabwean sons have done wonders in South Africa, it is quite sad that the game back home is in a state of comatose as funding appears to be a huge challenge.

That strong club system is no longer there with the Sables failing to reach the World Cup since that appearance in 1991.

Last year, Cyprian Mandege’s lost all their matches to Africa Cup Group 1A to Namibia, Uganda and Kenya.  

Mordt feels the Sables will always play catch up to the rest of Africa as long as the Zimbabwean economy is in its doldrums.

“Because of professionalism and the money coming into the game now, these youngsters coming out of Zim of course they are going to look to greener pastures to better themselves financially,” he said.

“If you see a young man who is good at the game obviously you are going to tell them that they gotta make their bucks whilst the sun still shines because rugby is not a long career; it’s a short time.”

Chavhanga, who scored six tries on his debut for the Springboks against Uruguay in East London in 2005, is also concerned with the lack of resources in Zimbabwean rugby.

“Obviously we made it to the 1987 and 1991 World Cups but after that the game was under pressure to become professional and we sort of lagged behind,” he said.

“As much as I would have loved to play for Zimbabwe but I knew from a pretty young age that I wanted to play professional rugby. The only way for that to happen was for me to come to South Africa.”

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