TO PLAY in two World Cups in a demanding sport like rugby would make anybody absolutely chuffed in their career.
It matters little that you are from New Zealand, the standard-bearers of the game on the planet, or from Zimbabwe, who haven’t returned to the World Cup in 32 two years.
Former Zimbabwe captain Andy Ferreira belongs to a special small group of five players who featured for their African homeland in the first two editions of the Rugby World Cup, in 1987 and 1991.
The legendary ex-Sables scrumhalf is joined on that list by Richard Tsimba, Alex Nichols, Michael Martin and Craig Brown.
Zimbabwe was one of nine countries specially invited to the inaugural edition in 1987 in New Zealand to join seven full members of the then International Rugby Football Board (IRFB) for a 16-team tournament.
With South Africa excluded due to apartheid, Zimbabwe was the only African nation in the two early World Cups.
“It was an incredible experience, obviously privileged to go,” Ferreira told The NewsHawks this week.
“We were seeded 16th in the world at that point. I know there was some dispute with Russia (then part of the Soviet Union), they thought they were 16th and they should go. And that’s why they were waiting for us in Harare on our return from the World Cup to play a one-off Test at the Police Grounds. Luckily enough, that game we won 18-9 so our place in that first World Cup was justified.”
The Soviet Union had, in fact, been invited to that 1987 World Cup but declined the offer in protest over South Africa’s continued IRFB membership. Still, such third-tier nations of world rugby as them somehow believed they were superior to Zimbabwe but Ferreira maintains that the Sables were better those days.
On their World Cup debut on 23 May 1987 at the famous Eden Park, where the All Blacks hoisted the maiden title later on 20 June, Brian Murphy’s young Zimbabwean side lost narrowly 21-20 to Romania in Pool 4 in a match that group of trailblazing Sables will reminisce for a lifetime as one they should have won.
“It was a very good side, just not enough international exposure and experience,” commented Ferreira of the Zimbabwe squad.
“We aimed to try and beat Romania because they were seeded around 10 in the world and we came so close, we lost in the last minute of the game. But yes, lots of experienced gained, good for Zimbabwe, it did put us on the map. 91 (World Cup, in Britain and France), we also had a very good side, (but) again not just enough experience. We lacked international experience and good quality opposition. So I guess that didn’t play in our favour. But going to our very first World Cup, which the All Blacks won, was a privilege to be there because New Zealand have a rugby culture which is lost these days, certainly in Zimbabwe. Their culture…every single person eats, lives, sleeps rugby. Whether you go to a pizzeria, people behind the counter will recognise you, even as the Zimbabwean team. They’d say to us, ‘you guys are playing Scotland next, you need to ruck the ball. Don’t maul it, they are too big for you’, et cetera. So it was just so nice to be in that environment.”
Zimbabwe went on to lose quite heavily to France and Scotland in the other group matches, but the smallest team in the tournament in terms of numbers and experience did made a good impression on spectators in a three rubbers.
Following the invitation of 1987, Zimbabwe was back for the next tournament in 1991 after winning a three-team African qualification competition also involving Morocco and Côte d’Ivoire. And then after the Ivorians surprised everybody to clinch Africa’s sole qualification slot for the historic 1995 event in South Africa, it has been Namibia all the way ever since.
Again, as the 2023 World Cup bursts into life in France next Friday, Zimbabwe will again be reduced to bystanders.
“It is incredibly sad,” remarked 62-year-old Ferreira. “It makes me feel very sad that we have since 1991 not qualified for the World Cup, which is heart-breaking for us. We’ve come very, very close often. A lot of time, effort and money have gone into trying to get Zimbabwe back into a World Cup. I know that (Zimbabwe’s coach) Brendan Dawson has put his life on hold and has coached the side to the best of his ability. And we’ve come so, so close and obviously as ex-national team players we are so behind the drive to get Zimbabwe to the World Cup. So yes it’s very, very sad that we haven’t quite clear that hurdle. The talent is there, there’s no doubt. I’m fortunate enough to coach at Peterhouse College and before that I coached St John’s College. We have some tremendous talent in our schoolboys. It’s just unfortunate that we can’t seem to hold on to them, with the economy being as it is in Zimbabwe. The youngsters are looking further afield to secure a reasonable job, or salary, or life. So it’s incredibly sad for me because the talent is definitely here. We field very strong Under-18 sides, very strong Under-20 sides and with the right coaching we could definitely do something at a World Cup.”
Rusape-born Ferreira captained Zimbabwe for four years and accumulated slightly over 50 caps.
Primarily a halfback, he was fielded in a different position in the backline at the 1987 World Cup.
“I played the first World Cup at fullback, not through my choice, it was through injury,” he said.
“So I ended up there, which is fine, a brand new experience for me. I had never played fullback before. The first time was at Eden Park, against Romania. So I was a bit nervous but we got through that game alright. And then I played scrumhalf for the second World Cup and most of my games for Zimbabwe were at scrumhalf and you know, I captained the side for four years and most of my caps were at scrumhalf. I definitely preferred scrumhalf, its closer to the action, you have more control and have more of the ball, which was what I liked.”
One of the five survivors from the 87 World Cup in Zimbabwe’s 1991 squad was the World Rugby Hall of Famer Richard Tsimba, who was posthumously inducted in 2012 following his tragic death in a car crash in 2000.
The prodigious Tsimba – Zimbabwe’s first black rugby international – scored two breath-taking tries in the Sables’ agonising one-point defeat to Romania 36 years ago. Ferreira remembers a top-class player with a wide range of skills.
“Richard Tsimba, not only was he a very good friend of mine, we played club rugby together and we developed a very close relationship,” Ferreira said.
“He was an outstanding centre, absolutely outstanding centre. At the 87 World Cup, people were raving about him. His eye for the gap, and his speed, coupled with his defence, was unbelievable. So he had an incredibly good World Cup, and I know that Richard would have done very well going forward and would have been an icon for this country. Sadly, as you know, it’s the late Richard now.”
Ferreira predicts France 2023 to be an unforgettable World Cup, given the red-hot form of some of the favoured teams.
“It’s going to be one of the most exciting we have had, simply because there are four possible teams that could win the World Cup,” he said.
“You’ve got South Africa looking very good at the moment, they’ve just beat the All Blacks quite convincingly. You’ve got the All Blacks, and France the host nation. It’s always nice to play at home, and have home advantage. And then Ireland. Ireland is seeded (number) one in the world and for a very good reason. They’ve been one for a little bit. So there is four there that could win the World Cup and for me, simply because some of our ex-Zim players have played for the Springboks – Adrian Garvey, (Gary) Teichmann and all those guys, my heart is with South Africa. So I would like to see them pull off another World Cup. That would be amazing.”