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Rugby debate: ‘Playing dirty vs being too soft’

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“FOOTBALL is a gentlemen’s game played by ruffians, and rugby is a ruffians’ game played by gentlemen.”

ENOCK MUCHINJO

So goes the old British adage, which embodies part of the ethos of the game proudly associated with the rest of the rugby-playing world for centuries. 

Rugby communities are very closely-knit, small and proud, conservative to a large degree – regardless of where you find them on the planet. 

The philosophy of rugby – teamwork, respect, enjoyment and sportsmanship – are desirable qualities of this sport. Well, so they say.

Truthfully speaking, this is a biased take on things by purists of the game because a lot has changed over the years. The notion that rugby is an innocent old game, in spite of its brute nature, is not entirely the spirit in which this sport has been played in the post-amateur era of where winning is not only everything, but the only thing. 

Far too much undesirable stuff and overt aggression take place in this game today, much to the disgust of a certain clique of parents who then react by pulling their children out of the sport, fearing serious harm.

Take for instance, this week, when a well-known community leader, Shingai Rukwata Ndoro, who says he is a “rugby parent”, took to social media to lodge a protest against Harare Sports Club star player Kudzai Mashawi for displaying off-the-ball aggression against a young opponent during a match last week. 

Ndoro posted a short video clip in which Mashawi, in an apparent fit of rage, appears to be thrusting his foot into the face of an opposition player, who had gone to the ground after a late tackle when the Sports Club man had already scored a try.

This happened during a domestic Sevens tournament won by Harare Sports Club last weekend.

“Below is a video clip where Kudzai stepped on the face of a young player of High-Performance Club (HPC) which consists of U19 players, just coming out of school,” posted Ndoro.

“There is a noticeable complaint from the HPC captain and also displeasure from the players that were ignored. What kind of playing would be tolerated like this? What kind of officiating would make such player conduct go unnoticed?”

Ndoro said he found Mashawi’s fiery competitive streak quite deplorable since the 28-year-old livewire is a senior player on the domestic circuit, and also captain of Zimbabwe’s national Sevens team.

“Kudzai can’t remain the captain of a national team with such aggression and ill temper. He needs to be punished for what he did,” wrote Ndoro.

“If you watch the rest of the game, you will notice before Mashawi did his dirty play, an HPC player called Zuze went out after a bloody nose after he was hit on the head. There is another moment when an HPC player Tanaka went down with a shoulder injury.  He (Mashawi) is too aggressive and ill-tempered for rugby. He needs to go to some other sport, maybe boxing.”

The Zimbabwe Rugby Union (ZRU) reacted swiftly to Ndoro’s post, saying the matter was being investigated. 

“The Union is seized with the matter. Let us allow the internal processes to be completed and a decision or judgement is made,” the ZRU said in a short response. 

Tinashe Rusike, who works for a local sports agency, Kyros Sports, urged the ZRU to get to the bottom of the matter. 

“Zimbabwe Rugby Union this is very clear violent conduct from Kudzai Mashawi,” he commented. “Violent conduct can badly hurt the reputation of any sport and it’s not good if you want to grow a game. French Rugby League up until the early 80s was a very vibrant game with so much popularity but the violence from that sport particularly from a single incident was enough to almost bring down an entire sport. We cannot have our sponsors seeing such things.”

Mashawi, however, found support from no less a decorated Zimbabwe rugby international than Cleopas Makotose, a former captain of the country’s foremost national team, the Sables, who was also a key member in one of Zimbabwe’s best Sevens sides of modern times. 

“Zimbabwe Rugby Union, you would like Kudzi to leave rugby and go for boxing, really? The kid made mistakes and he must be disciplined for his bad behaviour but for you to call him out of rugby is wrong,” Makotose waded into the debate. “How do you not know the names of the referees officiating that game, yet they also come out on video…? Only Kudzi is wrong in your eyes sadly.”

ZRU immediately answered Makotose, who the national association has seldom had a rosy relationship with over governance issues since the ex-captain’s playing days. 

Said the ZRU: “Cleopas Makotose, our position has always been to allow due process and then advise of the outcome.”

Brian Gonda, a keen rugby follower, agreed with Makotose over the action that ought to be taken against Mashawi. 

“Just give him a caution, those sort of things are unacceptable in rugby but do happen in almost every game played. It’s the ref and the two touch judges that need a refresher course.”

Yanesu Zvaitwa, another Zimbabwean rugby fan, took a more radical stance in support of Mashawi. Zvaitwa argued that the whole debate over the incident provides ample proof that Zimbabwe has become “soft” as a rugby nation, a reason why the country last qualified for the World Cup in 1991. 

“The outcry people are having here shows that they don’t know rugby, or they are just watchers of the game, commentators to say,” wrote Zvaitwa. 

“Such people (like Mashawi) are needed in the team to frustrate the opposition always, the fact that he wasn’t caught is a win. That’s how the All Blacks win, even how Namibia get to win against us (Zimbabwe).  We’re too soft and we don’t have any dirty players to try frustrate the opposition. We have Biselele (Tshamala; veteran Sables players), he tries but it’s not enough. We need more to do that and try hide from the referee. It’s a skill.  That’s frustrating the opposition. Watch how (ex-All Blacks captain and global legend) Richie McCaw used to do it game after game. That laaitie (young player from the Mashawi incident) was playing well. Sadly, after that incident, he was nowhere to be seen. I’m sure he learnt to toughen up and get back into the game. All I’m saying is why don’t we try to get at least something positive out of this. We need to teach our players to be smart when doing the dirty play, it’s necessary in rugby.”

Farai Otis Kieran Herbert, a regular contributor on the platform, also chose to defend Mashawi’s approach to the game, adding that Ndoro was “clutching at straws” in his criticism of the former Churchill School maestro.  

“Rugby is a game of men and tempers always flare up, it’s not a game of scrabble,” he said.

“Do you know how many people bite and punch each other with great tact in ruck and maul situations? His issue is that he was caught. The second and third clips were very docile, you were clutching at straws really. Had you been seeing the shoulder barges, punches and late challenges in the European games played last month. It should be a two or three-game suspension at the most, but acting like he (Mashawi) crucified Jesus when it was a moment of ill-judgement shown, shows your pettiness. It’s no cause for you to vilify a person that has put years of time and effort into the local game without pay. He is a tough tackler and player, one to be feared and he should be spoken to, as opposed to be treated in such a way that you want him to quit the sport. Shingai Rukwata Ndoro your tone should focus on rehabilitating the young Kudzai and not to incite ill-will against him as though you pay any rugby player. Facebook is not a formal channel now, is it or you want donations and adulation from vana (the likes of) Unicef.”

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