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A spur for Sables amid brutal reality check

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LIKE ill-equipped troops being sent into a combat zone, the Sables stood in the way of ruthless Namibia before the final of the Stellenbosch Challenge last week, the writing all over the wall.

 Once the Namibians had slaughtered a pretty decent Kenya side 60-24 in the other semi-final, Zimbabwe’s performance in their battling 24-22 win over Brazil in the other tie was a sign that a two-decade winless streak against their greatest rivals was set to continue at least for another year.

We have come so close in the past 20 years, at home and in Windhoek, and nearly all those Zimbabwean sides — as you can always bet on the Sables — have been a group of players that represent their country with utmost pride. 

That includes the current side. Patriotism runs very deep in the veins of these men. And in coach Brendan Dawson, a former Zimbabwe captain, it looks like the right combination because the players can leverage his well-known passion for the game and the country.

 Dawson is a loyal coach, there is a bunch of players he has stuck with throughout his second spell in charge of the Sables, all good team players who bring something unique to the side. 

 But, suffice it to say, common sentiment among the Zimbabwean rugby Press corps is that the bulk of the Sables squad is not of the right quality to challenge for a place at the 2023 World Cup in France. Zimbabwe, however, produces rugby players of world-class attributes, born and groomed here, and others with kind of Zimbabwean heritage.

 Thus, news this week that the World Rugby Council has approved a landmark regulatory change for international rugby players to switch national teams from next year, was received with excitement. 

 Players can change, provided they last featured for another side for 36 months on top of other requirements, like having a parent or grandparent born in the new nation they intend to represent if they were not born there themselves. 

This means that, for example, Springbok legend and World Cup-winner Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira – or former Australia captain David Pocock – can make a sensational return to international rugby, in the colours of their native Zimbabwe.

A rather farfetched dream, however, in the case of these two. But these are not the only top-class players with Zimbabwean roots who can now be selected for the Sables in the wake of this new eligibility law. Most did not play Test rugby for their adopted countries, but they were being prevented from doing so for Zimbabwe because they had been around the second-tier representative sides of those nations.

Before the law was amended, that also disqualified them from returning home to challenge for Sables places.  Already, the Sables team management had been sweating over the selection of highly rated loose forward Mungo Mason, only because he once was in Scotland’s Sevens side set-up despite not being capped.

Same as someone like the Bulawayo-born Mike Williams, a 30-yearold lock who was once called up by Eddie Jones into an England pre-season squad in 2016, but again never capped. There are so many examples, and for a Zimbabwe team that so desperately need to reinforce its forwards pack, one can only imagine a lock pairing of Williams and Eli Snyman, the former Zimbabwe Schools star who went to play for South Africa Under-20 as well as professionally in Europe.

This is the route Zimbabwe ought to take in pursuit of 2023 World Cup qualification. But it is not as easy as it looks.

Because these players are involved in club or provincial rugby in the different countries they are dotted, if they were to play for Zimbabwe, they could be classified as foreign players and at worst surrender some of the privileges that come with being locals. It is not a gamble others might want to take. 

From my experience of covering Zimbabwean rugby, though, the connection to this country is very strong among those who have links with it. Often, where there is a will, a way is paved. 

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