Zimbabwe’s rugby fraternity has good reason to be excited about the recent unveiling of Peter De Villiers as head coach of the Sables, an important step in the right direction for Zimbabwe to be taken seriously as a rugby-playing nation.
De Villiers boasts a wealth of experience from his time coaching the Springboks. Having worked under him for two of my four Tests, I know there will never be a dull moment and he will create the kind of environment Zimbabwe rugby needs after years of underachievement.
Former Sables player Brendon Dawson, who also happens to be Zimbabwe’s most successful modern-day coach, will serve as De Villiers’ assistant.
Roping in someone like Kennedy Tsimba as a technical consultant would go a long way in bringing structure to the attack. Defence is an area of great concern and recruiting a top specialist to fix the serious leakages should be a priority. All the teams in Zimbabwe, from junior level to the top, have had an atrocious defensive record. It’s something that will have to be addressed as a matter of urgency.
De Villiers is going to need assistance and cooperation from all the stakeholders and it’s not going to be an easy task given the existing divisions among coaches, administrators and even players within the Zimbabwean rugby landscape. However, as an ‘outsider’ he has an incredible opportunity to unite people who might not have necessarily sat together in the same room. The type of person Peter is and the euphoria he has brought with him will bring people to sit at the same table.
The Zimbabwe Rugby Union believes that De Villiers offers them a genuine shot at qualifying for the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan and I’m certain the men in suits will assist him as best as they can to achieve the objective.
In order to reach the tournament for the first time since 1991, 44th-ranked Zimbabwe will play a round-robin set of qualifiers with five other African nations, including favourites Namibia, Kenya, Morocco, Tunisia and Uganda.
There’s pressure on De Villiers to get positive results quickly. The Sables narrowly missed out on reaching the 2015 Rugby World Cup, losing out to Namibia on points-difference, and the bottom line is that if they almost made it sans a top-level coach or foreign-based players, anything less than qualification in 2019 will be viewed as a failure.
Given his resume and personality, De Villiers has the best chance of any of the previous Zimbabwean coaches to lure overseas-based players back into the fold. I understand he has already made contact with some of those players, and a few have expressed their desire to represent the Sables. Balancing domestic and foreign-based players will be challenging – De Villiers will have to place a strong emphasis on improving the skill level of the local players and afford them as good a chance to get selected as their overseas-based counterparts.
Meanwhile, it’s important to note that, just as most Pacific Islanders grow up wanting to play for the All Blacks, myself and many others who crossed the Limpopo dreamed of playing for South Africa – for us, the Springboks represented the pinnacle of rugby success.
It’s imperative that Zimbabwean youngsters grow up wanting to play for the Sables like many did after the team featured at the 1991 World Cup, and I believe this will start happening when we get our house in order.
The talent is there – Zimbabwean schools have been producing quality players for a long time. I recall our 1999/2000 Prince Edward Tigers sides beating Paarl Boys High and narrowly losing to Affies at the St John’s Easter Festival.
Unfortunately, the National Rugby League is not of the best standard due to a lack of funding. The majority of schoolboy prodigies never got the opportunity to realise their potential and the national team has subsequently suffered. But one would expect that, as the country begins to recover from years of economic hardship, so too will its rugby.
Chavhanga holds the Springbok record for scoring six tries on debut against Uruguay in 2005. Having retired from professional rugby in 2015, he now runs a production studio that provides young Africans with a platform to tell their stories. Follow him on Twitter: @tchavhanga