SOME of my personal favourite sports stars are those that take their ambitions to the big stage from the smallest of places, and conquer.
Mutare, my hometown, has given Zimbabwe its fair share of such sporting heroes across multiple disciplines.
But you will most certainly only see the likes of Willard Katsande, Onismor Bhasera or Tino Mawoyo being given celebrity reception when they return home to Mutare because unlike the others, their chosen sporting codes have visibility among the wilder public in the country.
Dean Burmester, who last week won the Johannesburg Open on the DP World Tour and has earned millions playing LIV Golf, will probably only be recognised as a local hero by a just a tiny old guard of Mutare who remember his early boyhood days there.
This is not because Mutare-born Burmester participates under the South African flag: he lived in Zimbabwe until his early teens, first learnt to swing away in this country, and still calls Royal Harare his home course. It is simply because he is a golfer – not a footballer or a cricketer like Katsande and Mawoyo.
What of rugby, which is supposedly big in this country? It is the same story, I’m afraid, because those that have distinguished themselves in this sport, frustratingly so, do not get enough credit as sporting heroes of this nation.
I doubt that Prayer Chitenderu and Jacques Leitao – two of the finest Zimbabwean athletes I’ve ever covered in this job, in any sport – will be getting the same attention when they return to their mountainous hometown.
We’re speaking here of two Zimbabwe rugby greats, both dynamic and tenacious loose forwards – whether they were making a nuisance of themselves at the breakdown or carrying the ball. These blokes, without a doubt, are two of my all-time favourites from our country, and definitely the best to come out of the hometown in my firm opinion.
Absolute beasts and fierce competitors till the end, whether trying to rescue a bruising game from Namibia in an important World Cup qualifier, or spanking little University of Zimbabwe in a local league match. Yet these were guys who played the game with grace, dignity and a smile always – epitome of true sportsmanship and rugby’s much treasured ethos. Fittingly, they’ve both continued to impact the next generation of rugby players through selfless coaching.
Over the years the numbers from Mutare have grown, and of quality too. Ngoni Chibuwe and Martin Mangongo are real livewires for Zimbabwe while the Muneta twin brothers – Munesu and Munopa – have used the Sevens national side as their entry point and are both brilliant prospects.
There was a third bona-fide Mutarean back then at the top of Zimbabwean rugby when I extensively covered this game some years back. His name is Alex Ndangana, a dashing winger in his heyday.
Like his uncle Prayer Chitenderu, Ndangana had started at Chancellor Junior School in Mutare before both were sent off to Harare for senior school at Churchill and Prince Edward, respectively.
Befittingly, again, Ndangana is equally selfless. The ex-Sables tear-away, who has been coaching at Hillcrest College back home in Mutare, was part of the development of a young player now tipped to become their town’s most famous son.
20-year-old Shingi Manyarara few months ago was signed by French top-flight club Racing 92 straight out of completing senior school in South Africa.
It is the sudden burst of speed for a big fellow, the power and solid defence that left the 133-year-old Paris club in no doubt that they had spotted a gem.
“We groomed him at Mutare Sports Club before he went to South Africa,” Chitenderu told The NewsHawks this week. “He passed through Alex’s hands at Hillcrest Junior in Mutare. What a brilliant young man.”
At Top 14 side Racing 92, eighth-man Manyarara teams up with South Africa captain Siya Kolisi and his fellow Springbok World Cup-winner Trevor Nyakane.
England back Henry Arundell is one of quite a few other 2023 World Cup stars in the Racing 92 squad.
What illustrious company, and remarkable turnaround for things, for a youngster who only three years ago was a starry-eyed pupil at Mutare’s Hillcrest College, a private school whose rugby standards had long fallen behind its peers in Zimbabwe.
A bursary to Kingswood College in South Africa did the trick for the young Zimbabwean, who finished his final year in 2022 with rugby honours at the Grahamstown school as well as Craven Week selection for Eastern Province.
A loosie like his hometown heroes Chitenderu and Leitao, now young Shingi will get to play next to another distinguished back-rower, none other than the two-time World Cup-winning skipper Kolisi.
“He is flying the Zimbabwe flag high, scoring a try early in his three-year contract with Racing,” Zimbabwe’s Under-20 coach Shaun De Souza, who made Manyarara stand-in captain when the Junior Sables retained their Youth Africa Cup title this year, said.
“He’s a well-grounded young man. It’s amazing for him to be rubbing shoulders with Boks captain Siya, England starter Henry Arundell, plus playing against a list of great internationals turning out for French Top 14 club sides. Shingi’s strengths are his work ethic, his passion to learn and improve in every training session. He is very hard on himself, before you can even jump in as a coach. For me, that’s a great leader. That’s why I made him captain versus the USA at the Junior World Trophy. He reminds me of TJ Maguranyanga (also in the French Top 14 with ASM Clermont Auvergne), who I was fortunate to coach Sevens. They have great work ethic. Such players make it easy to coach.”
Such top talents as Manyarara boost Zimbabwe’s chances of qualifying for the 2027 World Cup. The Sables haven’t been to the World Cup since the 1991 edition.
Former Zimbabwe star back De Souza is earmarked to be part of the Sables’ coaching staff in their quest to return to the game’s greatest showpiece.
“The list of youngsters that could lead the nation in the next World Cup campaign are great athletes and leaders,” De Souza said.
“I could mention Takudzwa Musingwini, Carl Kawodza, Jason Makwabarara, Rua Karimazondo, Mike Mhute, Declan Ralphs, Craig Snyder, Connor Pritchard, and others.”
The jewel in the crown could well be the big fellow from the mountains, who is already sharing a changing room with World Cup champions.