THE talent in the Zimbabwe Under-20 rugby team has brought a new sense of hope for this country to one day return to the Rugby World Cup for the first time since 1991.
This dynamic team is blessed with size any world-class team would desire, speed that can break any defensive line and, most importantly, unquestionable national pride.
All these ingredients take years of blending before reaching the quality standard of qualifying for the 15s World Cup, the game’s greatest showcase.
The Young Sables finished third in their pool group games of the World Rugby Under-20 Trophy in Kenya after losses to Scotland, Uruguay and then a tight win against the United States.
They will play for fifth and sixth place on Sunday against hosts Kenya in the World Rugby Under-20 Trophy. Head coach Shaun De Souza had aimed for a top-four finish, but will have to settle for fifth place as a win against the Kenyans is almost certain, given Zimbabwe’s recent dominance in Africa.
Despite heavy losses to Scotland and Uruguay, international talent scouts were gathered around the Zimbabwe players. This is because they see potential in our Young Sables. The two losses were mainly due to technical issues at scrum time and lineouts. De Souza’s boys gave away possession and penalties in these two areas, that are of key importance in top-level rugby.
There were also structural deficiencies in defence. But, having said that, all teams in the tournament, except Uruguay, lacked in this area. To address the scrummage and lineout issues, our dedicated three-man coaching staff needs more technical support from international experts. This is the common trend in tier-one rugby nations, for obtaining success regarding technical aspects of the game.
At the 2015 Rugby World Cup, New Zealand had 15 coaches who were previously part of other national teams. The 2019 World Cup finalists England had an Australian, South African and New Zealander as part of their core coaching staff.
If England and its self-righteousness can be forced to outsource technical support for a sport they gave to the world in 1823, then surely there is nothing embarrassing about Zimbabwe reaching out to neighbours South Africa, who won the 2019 World Cup by dominating in areas we consider our two weakest areas: scrums and lineouts.
It was clear in Kenya that with each game in the tournament, the Young Sables improved their performance. This highlighted the need for our teams to now be consistent at playing international teams ranked 10th to 20th in the world. These teams include the likes of Spain, Uruguay, USA, Scotland, Samoa and Tonga.
Playing local men’s teams in preparation for the World Rugby Under-20 Trophy made financial logic and improved the team.
However, the constant changes to the Zimbabwe starting team during the Kenya tournament indicated that the coaching staff was learning new stuff about what certain players can handle and cannot handle with each game played.
As much as the nation’s ego demands scoreboard success at each tournament, the Under-20 level is meant for development according to international best practice; exposing players, learning their strengths and weaknesses as they transition into the senior men’s team. This should form the base of the key result areas analysis when the team returns home.
When the team returns, a point for discussion for the Zimbabwe Rugby Union (ZRU) board is the pathway for head coach Shaun De Souza. Does he continue with the Under-20 team or does he move up to the senior men’s team?
As we aim to qualify for future World Cups, a look at the best rugby nation’s transitioning of coaches may provide guidance. Scott Robinson has been announced the head coach for the All Blacks to take over after 2023 World Cup.
Robinson coached the New Zealand Under-20s in 2015 and 2016 and for the past seven years he has been coaching the Crusaders, the number one team in the country. This means Scott is a familiar face to the majority of the current All Blacks team.
As for our own Shaun, he is well-positioned to certainly be part of the coaching staff for the Zimbabwe senior team as we prepare for the 2027 qualification quest.
There are a handful of issues worth noting as to why his Young Sables team has dominated the African continent in the last two years. Firstly, the introduction of the local Paramount Under-20 league competition. There is no other African country with an Under-20 competition right now. This means by the time the Under-20 Africa Cup takes place, our teams are match fit and we know who our best players are.
Secondly, our Under-20 team in the last two years have received good corporate support and have managed to train together locally for six months – a day or two a week. Only teams in Europe manage to train together this often.
Thirdly, about 50% of our Under-20 team completed their education in South Africa schools, which has the toughest school rugby competition in the world. These boys come with good game awareness, strong skills base, and are battle hardened.
Lastly, these boys have been playing rugby together since the age of 13. This has come in the form of national age-group selection but, most importantly, most of them were part of elite high-performance rugby camps held during school holidays throughout their high school journey.
These Young Sables of 2023 are a talented bunch. Continual support in the form of more technical experts and increased matches against quality international teams should see Zimbabwe dominate African rivals and, resultantly, qualify for the 2027 World Cup.
*Guest columnist Nyasha Muchochomi is a high-performance enthusiast, leading rugby analyst and sporting talent manager.