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When a giant falls, the entire nation feels the pinch




THE South African icon Danie Craven – who lived between 1910 and 1993 – had a vision that to this day makes South African rugby the brute force it is in world rugby.

He said for South African rugby to prosper, both “north and south” need to be strong always. By “north and south”, the great Craven meant Western Province and Blue Bulls province, but also, of course, the other provinces in between.

Good old Craven has the biggest schoolboy rugby tournament in the world named after him, South Africa’s Craven Week, in which our Zimbabwean team has participated in, proudly, over many years.

His take on north and south strikes a chord in Zimbabwe, the little cousins just next door. At our very peak in Zimbabwe, we used to have the two biggest provinces  — Mashonaland and Matabeleland — going toe-to-toe from primary school level, high school level, club level, up to provincial level.

In fact, all the other provinces in between were not left far behind. It was Zimbabwean sport in its healthiest condition. From Masvingo to the Country Districts to Manicaland and the Midlands – nobody felt inferior on the sports fields, on the running tracks.

However, since the turn of the millennium, the tide has turned. I was raised in Bulawayo, and the city’s sporting roots run deep into me.

I can’t fathom that the great Old Miltonians, which used to ruthlessly dominate the Lion Lager National League in my young days, is being spoken of in past tense these days.

I played for Matabeleland’s provincial primary school select team, the Duikers, which won four Owen Davies inter-provincial competitions on the trot. And during those days, such achievements were not a stroll in the park.

The legendary Zimbabwean cricket all-rounder Heath Streak, the recently departed record Zimbabwe rugby captain “Bucky” Buchanan, who were born and grew up in the region, were immersed in that culture of this city and its environs, with its reputation of sporting excellence.

Who does not know Streakey, of course? Buchanan is the enigma who captained Rhodesia and Zimbabwe in a record 50 games and clocked 100 caps for the Sables.

The famous Olonga brothers, Victor and Henry, from rugby and cricket respectively, are also well-known sons of the Matabeleland region who made a mark in their different sporting disciplines.

These generations took inspiration from the Rhodesian national side of 1949 that famously defeated New Zealand in Bulawayo. The All Blacks are the most successful team in world sport history.

The All Blacks fell 10-8 at Hartsfield in the City of Queens and Kings. Before that, only five nations had beaten New Zealand. Just Ireland and Argentina have joined that elite group to this day.

Even the recently departed Ian McIntosh of Bulawayo, the legendary Natal and Springboks coach, grew up knowing of the Miracle of Bulawayo, and it inspired him.

These legends all passed it down, right to the turn of the millennium. Unfortunately, at the turn of the millennium the spark died. Combination of lack of coaching, economic meltdown, migration of the younger generation from the region – all had a say in the demise of Matabeleland sport.

It reached its lowest when the famous venue where the All Blacks were floored, Hartsfield, looked like a long abandoned playground.

It is hard to imagine that Plumtree High School, which produced the Olongas, ex-Sable and Springbok Adrian Garvey, Zimbabwe’s youngest rugby captain Cleopas Makotose – can no longer compete against the best schools in the country.

Over and above that, other strongholds in the city and region such as CBC, Milton and Gifford are now a total bore on a Saturday afternoon for an old boy and the hardcore Matabeleland fan, for they are thumped week-in, week-out.

When Harare’s Prince Edward beat Falcon last week away in Esigodini – the last standing men of Matabeleland who had been fighting a lone battle from that part of the country – let go a proud record.

The powers-that-be need to look into this, because this is not just about Matabeleland sports, but about Zimbabwe. A weak Matabeleland is not good for Zimbabwe.

As a youngster growing up in Bulawayo, I played for Matabeleland Duikers, the province’s junior select side. We were in absolute awe of players from OMs, Matabeleland Busters, as well as the high-density outfits Highlanders and Western Panthers.

I remember the role models: Theo Weale, Gareth Jones, Norman Mukondiwa, Brendan Dawson, Silethokuhle “Slater” Ndlovu.

They took the challenge head-on and wore their hearts on their sleeves, without any inferiority complex, against other provinces.

It has all disappeared. But I am convinced the good times will come back. There is world-class talent in Matabeleland and it will not go away.

A certain Peter Ndlovu proved it, all the way from Skies, to become the first African footballer in the modern English Premier League.

What about Bruce Grobbelaar, Adam Ndlovu, Henry “Bully” McKop, Mercedes Sibanda, Ben Nkonjera?

They say a fish rots from the head. The people running sport in the country, in Matabeleland, must have the passion that existed back in the days. They should not be devoid of fresh ideas to revive the good old days.

The internal fights have taken life out of Matland sports. There is neglect of development, and I speak more about rugby because it is my main sport. In South Africa, they have realised that rugby cannot continue to be an elitist sport.

One of the secrets for success in SA is that they have gone to the rural areas, and now three quarters of the team is composed of Siya Kolisi, Bongi Mbonambi, Lukhanyo Am, Makazole Mapimpi, Cheslin Kolbe, all these guys – who all form the spine of a winning team. It shows that if there is good management and unity, success is possible.

The Matabeleland legends I have mentioned, who we idolised, should see themselves as having a role in uplifting the pride and passion of old which was the hallmark of Matabeleland sport.  

*Guest columnist Chris Tavonesa is a former Matabeleland Junior Schools (Duikers) rugby player.