Leitao rallies his troops

RUGBY

CALM BEFORE THE STORM . . . The captains of the participating teams at the Hong Kong Sevens tournament pose for a group picture yesterday before the tournament gets underway today — World Rugby


Paul Munyuki Sports Reporter

THE Cheetahs prowl the Hong Kong turf this morning with the aim of becoming a World Sevens Series core member after years of trying and captain Jacques Leitao believes the Zimbabwe rugby side will make it. Leitao, who is the most experienced member of the side having won several silverware and two World Cup appearances that include a Bowl win during the 2009 global showpiece, knows that his side cannot afford to slip up at any stage if they are to emerge successful.

Hosts Hong Kong have been drawn in Pool E where they will take on the two South American teams, Uruguay and Brazil, and Mexico.

Russia, Papua New Guinea, South Korea and Tunisia are in Pool F, while last year’s relegated side Spain, Zimbabwe, Tonga and Georgia complete Pool G.

Only one team in the 12-team battle will earn the sole core membership ticket.

Zimbabwe will open their campaign with a rather easy assignment against Guyana this morning before taking on Tonga two hours later to round off day one of their games while a date against Spain will complete their group games tomorrow.

However, the Old Georgians and Sables flanker says they cannot afford to lose any of their games if they are to win the second-tier competition that is running concurrently with the main World Series leg where the likes of South Africa, England New Zealand and Australia take part in.

That they will take on Spain, who were a core member last year and Tonga, who have mostly been ranked above them, is no threat to Leitao who feels it’s their attitude that will count during their games. “It does not matter who we are going to play because all the teams are aiming for one thing and that is winning the qualifier tournament to make it for the core membership . . . We just have to win all our six games if we are to make it.

“We have been trying for a number of years now to be among the core teams and we have been falling where it matters most,” said Leitao.

This will be the Cheetahs’ third attempt at making it for core membership status having failed over the past two years under the guidance of Gilbert “Gidza” Nyamutsamba in 2013 and under Liam Middleton last year.

And, this year, the Cheetahs will also have a different coach in the team’s former playmaker, Daniel Hondo, who will be taking charge of the side for the first time on the international scene and will be assisted by Zimbabwe Sevens legend John Ewing.

Before flying to Hong Kong, the Cheetahs had a week’s training with neighbours, the Blitzbokke, who are going into this tournament ranked as the world’s number one Sevens side and Hondo believes they benefited a lot from the South African camp.

“It was good for us to train with them (South Africa) because we learnt a lot from them and by the time we play in Hong Kong we will be confident having been exposed to better levels of rugby,” said the former Sables captain.

Leitao feels they are already at a better level than most of the sides they will play this weekend.

“It’s good mentally for us because the more we train at such a high level, the better for us so we have already stepped up because in Hong Kong we obviously have a job to do and I believe this year is the year for us to make it,” said Leitao.

Having last played for the Cheetahs at the same tournament last year, Biselele Tshamala has been included in the squad. Seven other players — backliners Stephan Hunduza, Hilton Mudariki, Kilvan Magunje, Tafadzwa Chitokwindo,Jacques Leitao, Njabulo Ndlovu and Boyd Rouse — who were part of the side that travelled to Asia last year and also played in Port Elizabeth at the end of 2014, are also in.

Scrummy Graham Kaulback and wingers, Shayne Makombe and Kudakwashe Chiwanza, are part of the squad in Hong Kong. This has also seen the inclusion of Riaan O’Neill who is set to earn his first Cheetahs debut.

Cheetahs squad:

Jacques Leitao (captain), Biselele Tshamala, Njabulo Ndlovu, Boyd Rouse, Hilton Mudariki, Graham Kaulback, Stephan Hunduza, Shayne Makombe, Kilvan Magunje, Tafadzwa Chitokwindo, Kudakwashe Chiwanza, Riaan O’Neill

Coach: Daniel Hondo

Assistant: John Ewing

Manager: Steve Macdonald