PANASHE Zuze found himself trending this week, courtesy of a picture of his tiny frame next to the huge Côte d’Ivoire captain – in apparent on-field confrontation – as the referee frantically tried to separate the two.
Like Australia legend George Gregan, fresh-faced Zuze is the smallest man in his own team, but the side’s natural leader. It is also worth noting that the great ex-Wallabies captain Gregan, whose middle name is Musarurwa, has Zimbabwean roots and was a nippy scrumhalf, just like Zuze.
Zimbabwe Under-20 skipper Zuze’s image next to the Ivorian giant, of the same age as him, sparked wide-ranging reaction around the continent: amazement, subtle scorn, and even sheer ignorance.
Ignorance because while size does matter a great deal in rugby, it is not everything, as shown by the final score-line on Saturday, Zimbabwe 55 and Côte d’Ivoire 0.
Four days later, before the first Rugby Under-20 Africa Cup semi-final in Kenya on Wednesday, former Hartmann House and St George’s College pupil Zuze also appeared in another attention-grabbing picture with his opposite number. He is seen shaking hands with the Tunisian skipper, an absolute bear of a man – bearded, intimidating, and taking a bird’s eye view of the Zimbabwean number 9 and skipper.
The score in the end, a 66-6 rout of the big North Africans, sent rampaging Zimbabwe into Sunday’s final against Kenya, guaranteeing the Young Sables a place at July’s Junior World Rugby Trophy.
“Yes, definitely the Tunisians were towering over our captain,” Zimbabwe head coach Shaun De Souza told The NewsHawks from Nairobi on Wednesday after another thoroughly convincing outing.
Pint-sized his captain might be, De Souza is a man immensely proud and confident of the fine balance of the Zimbabwe squad, and he did make good on his vow to challenge the Tunisians in the physical confrontation on Wednesday.
“For us it’s a mind game, having Panashe go for the captains’ photo, it’s just something that sort of draws attention to the team and people think that Zim is small,” De Souza declared.
“They don’t know that he is just the diamond, with a bunch of elephants that are behind him. So ja, I think it has worked for us and we are happy to have him in our leadership. Panashe’s size has never been a factor, we have worked with him for a while, we understand him, we know how to utilise him. He has grown to understand my way of play and how I like things done. So he made the cut along with a strong support structure behind him.”
While De Souza is chuffed to have Zuze leading from the front, he also has another ace up his sleeve in the form of replacement scrumhalf Shadrick Mandaza.
“He (Zuze) has a good combination with Shadrick Mandaza, and it’s working well,” De Souza said.
“Panashe comes in and does his work, and Shadrick comes in and finishes it off. They all have different attributes at 9, which definitely makes our game unique in the sense of tempo, and style of play when they both come on. It’s about the way they lead the team when the changes are made. So ja, we are very happy to have these two and we’re proud of what they are doing.”
De Souza’s team is unique in that players are drawn from diversified backgrounds – across social classes – with the greatest strength being the camaraderie forged from spending time together, and fighting bruising battles alongside each other.
“The team displays good brotherhood, they have now gelled, and they now know each other, they understand each other,” stated De Souza.
“What people don’t know is that I have been working with this team since 2021 when they were youngsters in the high-performance system. We’ve been building on this, and we’ve been working on a programme that has continuity. When this year we announced the final travelling team (for the Barthes Trophy), we also had in the background an academy team that we are looking to add into this system going forward. As we are going to be competing in the Junior World Rugby Trophy, we definitely have to keep our standards at that level. So we need to have youngsters in the wings. Youngsters that have trained with us, up to camp stage, so that they understand how we prepare as Junior Sables and what work is needed, and what standard is needed for final selection. So that’s the plan, and it has worked well. Obviously we are glad to see that the chemistry is showing on the park, we are glad that it’s paying dividends.”
Born in a Muslim Harare family, the tournament in Kenya came right at the end of Ramadan, something De Souza holds dear in his life, but prefers to separate from his normal sporting life.
“My religion is just my faith, it has no effect on the way I manage the team, the way I coach,” said the former Sables fan favourite.
“My coaching time is my coaching time, my work ethic is bound by my religion. How I carry myself, how I express myself to my players, how the team relate around each other – it all comes down to the ethics that I’m bound by. My religion is Islam. So having Ramadan before the final camp, for me, it was just one of those events that we were preparing for. In the month (of Ramadan) we carried on as normal, it didn’t affect me in any way. I carried my religious duties and I still coached and got the team ready. I still got to work and coach rugby in the evening. So that doesn’t change my lifestyle, it has just become part of my lifestyle that I have to coach, work and follow my religion.”
Kenya defeated Namibia 24-13 in the other semi-final contest on Wednesday.
So Kenya await Zimbabwe in the final this Sunday, by virtue of the East Africans being automatic qualifiers for the Junior World Rugby Trophy that they will host in July.
But there is the small matter of being crowned African champions, of course with the pride and bragging rights that come with it.
After running riot against Côte d’Ivoire and Tunisia without conceding a single try, Zimbabwe will be overwhelming favourites in the final, even in front of a strong Nairobi home crowd on Sunday. But don’t say that to a perfectionist like Shaun De Souza.
“Yes, the scoreboard states that we have displayed dominance, but there is a lot of work we still need to work on,” he said.
“The scoreboard is just a reflection of what you managed to convert, there are a lot of points that we left out on the field. We didn’t cash in. If we had faced strong opposition, we would have put ourselves under pressure. But ja, that’s what we will assess in the game review, the Kenya-Namibia game, to see what strategy we will go with in the final.”