Paul Munyuki Sports Reporter
AS international rugby slowly turns its attention to the World Cup set for England in September, the domestic game will look back on a largely forgettable 2014 and probably reflect on a very good chance lost for qualification to the global showcase.The local game had over the years appeared to be on a steady rise to its past glory.
But a cocktail of failures at the Zimbabwe Rugby Union’s offices spilled into the field and by the time 2014 made way for 2015, there was no place for the Sables at the World Cup, the Sevens side the Cheetahs had no silverware to talk about and for the first time the National Rugby League ended prematurely with no winners declared.
It is not yet clear whether a sponsor has been found for that league for 2015.
The poor year for rugby was also highlighted by the fact that even the junior national teams uncharacteristically performed below par on the international stage, with only the Under-13 schools side faring much better when wining twice, drew once and lost a game at the Craven Week in South Africa.
Boardroom squabbles and power battles in the corridors of administration translated to failure on the field of play.
The Sables had two opportunities to claim a place at the World Cup.
Sport is largely about celebrating the athletes and their achievements, jeering and cheering the players on the field of play, and supporting the game even in economic sense through buying team regalia and sponsoring the teams, and rugby is no different.
But for Zimbabwe rugby, it was the administration that stole the limelight in 2014 all for the wrong reasons due to boardroom fights, power battles and a number of unconstitutional matters that went unresolved.
First was that vice-president Colleen de Jong who was unconstitutionally appointed by Union president John Falkenberg as the second and executive vice-president at the 2013 ZRU annual meeting, coming in to replace Aisha Tsimba, who had been appointed onto the Sports Commission board.
De Jong went onto make it onto the Confederation of African Rugby executive board two weeks ago ahead of another vice president Nyararai Sibanda who many feel deserved the post as he was constitutionally appointed onto the ZRU board.
Then came the controversial and power hungry director of rugby Liam Middleton.
Middleton — who is now with Canada Rugby — had grown unpopular in the ZRU corridors as he personally grabbed coaching jobs from both the Cheetahs and Sables coaches without the blessing of the executive board.
The former Cheetahs coach, not only ruined the Cheetahs core membership qualifiers but was responsible for failing to take Zimbabwe through to the 2015 World Cup after he ordered for a kicking-tee where Zimbabwe needed a try against Kenya in the final qualifier.
In the Cheetahs camp, he — without the authority of the ZRU — pushed coach Gilbert “Gidza” Nyamutsamba out of his job and he took over resulting in Zimbabwe failing in both the 2013 South Africa leg of the World Sevens Series and in their bid to make it as a core member in Hong Kong last year.
Middleton was also not successful with the Sables where he failed to take the Sables to the 2015 World Cup after relegating coach Brendan Dawson to assistant and assistant Cyprian “Supa” Mandenge to waterboy.
The best thing that happened in the administration circle was the acquisition of sponsorship for junior development programmes from Old Mutual who also took care of all the schools teams’ airfares to South Africa for their respective tournaments.
This was the first time that Craven Week teams — the Under-18, Under-17 and Under-13 — got their travelling expenses covered by the Union and a sponsor as previously the players had to fund themselves for national duty.
The ZRU also successfully hosted the Sevens Africa Cup and the Zimbabwe International Invitational tournament that drew the attention of the likes of Hong Kong, South Africa and Georgia at Harare Sports Club.
Falkenberg was a virtually nowhere to be found in carrying out his duties, leaving de Jong to run the show.
Everyone will remember the Sables Class of 2014 that was captained by Daniel Hondo for their failure to qualify for the 2015 World Cup set for England in September — more so because this was their best chance to make it for the world stage in more than two decades.
The flagship side had a disappointing end to yet another unsuccessful World Cup campaign that saw their dream suffer a huge blow at the hands of Russia in a play off in Siberia early August.
After they were left to fight another day having blown a golden opportunity to earn an automatic World Cup ticket to England during the qualifying tournament in Madagascar.
Coached by former Zimbabwe captain Brandon Dawson, the Sables finished second to Namibia in the World Cup qualifier competition and this forced them to travel to Russia for a date against the Bears in the first round of the play offs where the winner of this game would go on to face the winner of the game between Uruguay and Hong Kong on a home and away basis for the remaining World Cup ticket.
But it was not to be. As has become synonymous with national rugby teams, the Sables went into this game without any adequate preparation due to financial constraints and the result was not a surprise.
Zimbabwe will only return to action June in the Africa Cup following compounding the ZRU to look for more games for the Sables lest they face a 11 month dry spell.
Zimbabwe’s biggest achievement was that they qualified for the Hong Kong leg of the World Sevens Series despite finishing third in the Africa Cup hosted on home soil n November.
But two weeks down the line, captain Jacques Leitao and his troops finished 15th with just a point to show for it as they were winless and were just one place above bottom-placed Japan in the South Africa leg of the Sevens World Series.
Under the guidance of the controversial Middleton, the Cheetahs failed to make it as a World Sevens Series core member in Hong Kong ironically after Nyamutsamba was pushed away.
This was a tournament they had won in 2013 with Nyamutsamba in charge, giving huge expectations to the locals that Zimbabwe were going to win the tournament and earn an automatic ticket as a core member but the in-house battles weighed down on the Cheetahs dream.
National Rugby League
Half-way through the season the league was indefinitely suspended due to lack of funds after Delta through their Lion Lager brand saw it unnecessary to renew their marriage with the league leaving the rugby chiefs looking for “assistance” to complete the season but no one was immediately available to come on board.
Led by chairman Nody Kanyangarara, the NRL failed to complete the season after their coffers ran dry as they were using a surplus from the 2013 season when Delta were still on board.
Old Hararians failed to defend their title against the likes of former champions Old Georgians and bitter rivals Harare Sports Club
For the third time in a row, Nsikelelo “Sykes” Sibanda’s Young Sables failed to make it for the Junior World Rugby Trophy, falling in the Junior Africa Cup in Namibia.
For the Under-20 side, it was not a case of winning the title as they found themselves fighting relegation just after the first round of matches after losing to Kenya in the opening game.
This was the second successive time that the Young Sables were left to fight against relegation as it had to take the second and final game against Madagascar that they won 21-3 in Nelspruit, South Africa in 2013 to survive. Lack of adequate preparation was cited as the main reason for failure.
Last year’s Under-18 schools rugby side proved to be the worst Craven Week team to come out of Zimbabwe at this level in five years. They ranked as the lowest in terms of points and wins.
Coached by Godwin “Jaws” Murambiwa, the schools side proved a better side only to Border Country Districts who were ranked 20th with Zimbabwe sitting on 19 in the 20-team competition that is made up of 18 South African franchises with Namibia and Zimbabwe completing the participants list.
In 2013 Zimbabwe finished as the sixth best team but having lost to Eastern Province Country Districts (43-54), Griquas Country Districts (20-26) and falling to bitter rivals Namibia (25-38) in their final game, they found themselves 13 places below the Namibians.
The loss to Namibia meant the Namibians dominated Zimbabwe at all levels played last year as none of the junior sides and the national XVs men’s side — the Sables — came out with a victory against their opponents.
Doug Trivella’s Under-17 side’s hopes of finishing the Grant Khomo rugby festival unbeaten went up in smoke suffering a 22-32 defeat at the hands of bitter rivals Namibia in Pretoria, South Africa.
Zimbabwe had won their first two games (15-13 victory over Griquas before a 11-10 win against Griquas Country Districts) but it was against Namibia that they faltered but they managed a top six finish tied with the Free State, Blue Bulls and Eastern Province on nine points.
The Under-13 side won two of their four games, the other being a 24-24 draw against Namibia in a game they were 12-14 down at the break but did enough to snatch a truce against their bitter rivals.
Team of the Year
Without any doubt, the Zimbabwe Under-13 side deserve a lot of recognition for the efforts they showed in South Africa during the Craven Week in Durban, coming from behind in all three out of four games.
Opening the tournament with a 12-36 loss to Griquas, Zimbabwe showed a lot of character and gathered themselves for what was to be a memorable tournament where they went on to win their second game.
Scrum-half Rukudzo Munyeza was on song at the annual Under-13 schools Coca-Cola Craven Week rugby festival in Durban where his boot proved to be the decisive factor in all the games they won.
The value of a reliable kicker proved to be the difference as well when Zimbabwe again came from behind to stage a powerful come-back against Border Country Districts who they beat 31-27.
A 24-24 draw against Namibia in a game they were 12-14 down at the break marked a memorable tour for the juniors.
Player of the Year
It’s not every time that a Zimbabwean player makes it for a world dream team, especially in Sevens rugby but there is one special player who did that in the last year.
His name is Stephan Hunduza.
The prolific winger was in top form both in national colours and in the local league but it was on his debut World Sevens tournament that he made a lasting impression.
The prolific winger was the only Zimbabwean who was picked for the Dream Team that included the duo of eventual World Series core membership qualifiers Lote Tuqiri and Lomano Lemaki from Japan, Oliveiro Fabiani and Fabizio Sepe from runners up Italy while Russia had Evgeney Nepeyvoda and Hong Kong’s Yiu Kam Shing.