A POWERFUL Supersport documentary, Chasing the Sun, which captured South Africa’s journey to winning last year’s Rugby World Cup in Japan, premiered last month and was well received by a hugely impressed global audience.
For South Africa’s neighbour Zimbabwe—the poorer cousin in pretty much all facets of life including rugby—qualifying for the World Cup, let alone lifting it, has resulted in one heart-wrenching failure after another since the country’s last appearance at the showpiece exactly 29 years ago.
But one of the players who featured for Zimbabwe in that 1991 World Cup in Britain and France, scoring a try in a 55-11 defeat to Ireland at Lansdowne Road, is longing to return to the game’s biggest stage at the next edition, in what will be a first time for the Zimbabweans in 32 years.
If he gets a taste of the World Cup again, in France in 2023, it will however be in a different role for Brendan Dawson, the 53-year-old who is now in his second tenure as Zimbabwe’s head coach, tasked with guiding the Sables back into the global limelight after having been the only African nation at rugby’s first two World Cups in 1987 and 1991.
On Tuesday evening in Harare, the Zimbabwe Rugby Union (ZRU) hosted an event organised to put into motion concerted action by the country to return to the World Cup after three decades.
Quite interestingly, Adrian Garvey and Tonderai Chavhanga—both Zimbabwean-born ex-Springbok players—were the co-guests of honour at the dinner.
Dawson, however, stole the show on the night with a spellbinding speech that aptly summed up Zimbabwe’s burning desire to be at the World Cup in France in three years’ time.
South Africa’s road to clinching their third World Cup title last year, as demonstrated in the documentary, is a fascinating sporting tale Dawson reckons his Zimbabwe charges always experience in their own unique way.
“I looked at this video, that everybody has all witnessed, by the Springboks,” Dawson told invited guests.
“I looked at it and I immediately phoned Liam (Middleton; Zimbabwe’s defence coach). And I phoned Jason (Maritz; team manager). And I said ‘you know what guys, it’s a phenomenal movie, absolutely amazing’. But you know what, we have got our own story. We have our own story in Zimbabwe. Yes, I do understand that Mapimpi, guys like him, had a tough time growing up (…winger Makazole Mapimpi scored South Africa’s first ever try in a World Cup final in last year’s 32-12 win over England). But look at what they produced. They went on to play for the Sharks, and now the Springboks. But you people don’t understand in life that in the coaching world, every coach talks the same language in the changing room, and in the team talk. We all psyche up the players that every single day they wear the jersey of their country, they lay their body on the line. Give anything you’ve got to play for your country. There is nothing greater than to wear your national jersey.”
A teary Dawson, characteristically unable to control emotions throughout his speech, drew thunderous applauses from the audience when he chronicled the trials and tribulations Zimbabwean rugby players usually go through.
“When these people (international rugby players) run onto the field, they cry. When they sing the national anthem, they cry even more,” said Dawson.
“But the most amazing thing is that those youngsters in the Springboks, those players all over the world, they get a nice bank balance after their game. Our (Zimbabwe) guys come back with US$50. And it is expected to pay for their families for a month. That’s the very big difference. That’s when I look at it and I say, my God, guys, we’ve got a 10-fold bigger journey, a bigger story to tell in our own country, than what the Springboks have got. Rugby in my head is everything, besides my wife and two kids. And when I see people like our Zimbabwe players, every single day and you ask them to do something, and they still come back, with the 50 dollars that they spent on their family. They come back and do the same again for Zimbabwe. And we’ve come this close, twice, to qualify for the World Cup. And I ask, I don’t beg, but I ask the community, the corporate world, to understand that we have got a massive journey, and I’d love you to be part of it. And I’d love you guys in the corporate world, to be able to say I changed a life.”
Bulawayo-born Dawson — a former Zimbabwe captain and one of the country’s most capped internationals of all time — vowed not only to take the Sables to France 2023, but also to leave a mark at the tournament.
“I can assure you that we will go to the World Cup,” Dawson declared. “And we will compete at the World Cup. We won’t be a team that will just be playing. We will be a team that will be threatening other teams. We’ve got immense amount of talent within our country and outside our country, that is dying to wear the green-and-white jersey. And all I ask, is for all of us to go away tonight, and think about it, in the corporate world, of how we can help. From donating caps like tonight, to giving a million US dollars. It’s something. The smallest thing can go a long, long way. So I’m not asking for a massive amount of anything. I’m asking for commitment, desire, the will to help, and whatever that can drive us to go forward.
“I believe it, and it’s been my belief for a very long time. One thing that has happened to us Zimbabweans is that we’ve lost the confidence, we’ve lost the most important thing in our lives, and that is belief in ourselves. It’s massive, guys, belief. And when you stand next to a man, and he’s a man mountain next to you, you got to believe that you can outplay him. You’ve got to believe that if you scrum against him, you can out-scrum him. That’s the belief that has been knocked out of us. How many times have you heard our players being dismissed, ‘he’s only Zimbabwean, don’t worry about him, Zimbabweans! We’ll be alright. They can only come second. They can only lose.’ And we accept that.
No more. Because when you have got integrity, such attitude cannot be allowed in your life.”
While the vast array of players with Zimbabwean roots based in various parts of the planet will be key to the country’s World Cup quest, Dawson has also pinned hopes on some young talented stars who up until recently had been playing their rugby at home.
20-year-old loose-forward Blithe Mavesere, one of Zimbabwe’s best players in their debut SuperSport Challenge season in South Africa last year, was singled out for praise by Dawson.
“I asked Danny Hondo (Harare Sports Club coach and now Sables backline coach),” Dawson said. “I said ‘Dan, we are short of an open-side flanker’. He said to me ‘Daws, I have one at Sports Club’. So I said ‘let’s send him up’. He flew into Cape Town, this laaitie walks in, and he’s 83kgs. And I phoned up Dan, and I said ‘Danny, what’s the story about, buddy, what have you done to me? There are okes here that are huge! And you send me an 83kg man! So he said to me ‘Daws, trust me, what I’m telling you. This oke is unbelievable!’ Anyway, to cut a long story short, in our (SuperSport Challenge) campaign, that young man weighed 97kgs. He was in the most prime physique. So this flanker, he won a scholarship at the University of Western Cape. They are paying for everything, everything paid, university paid. And that’s massive for a young man, and I will tell you the story, a young man that walks from his home, from Harare Sports Club, and then he catches two ETs and he walks every single day to come and play rugby for us.”
Prop Cleopas Kundiona, one of the finds of Zimbabwean rugby over the past two years, who was present at the function, has also given Dawson reason to believe that the future is very bright for his team.
“One of the most amazing things I’ve experienced, and I’ve not shared the story with a lot of people except my wife is…Cloppy, come here my mate,” Dawson called up the steely 21-year-old front rower, who he also coached at schoolboy level.
“This young man, I met him three years ago at Falcon College and believe me or not, this man weighed 130kgs, and I tell you it wasn’t like this solid. And I said to this young man, and his father, I said ‘I’d like you to play Falcon first-team’. And his eyes lit up like this and he said ‘me Sir, playing Falcon first-team?’. And I said ‘yes, we can make you play first-team’. That was in September. In April the following year, he played for Zimbabwe Schools. After the SuperSport Challenge last year, Cloppy got a contract with Sharks in Durban.”
The final round of World Cup qualifiers will be played in July 2022.