The Sunday Mail
Deputy Sports Editor
IN theory, Zimbabwe still have two possible routes that could take them to the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France, and how appropriate that their perennial foes Namibia stand in their way on both fronts.
The first, and clearly the best option, is to win this year’s Africa Cup tournament.
The 2022 Africa Cup will act as the third and final round of the African Qualification process, with the winner of the eight-team knockout competition advancing to the World Cup as Africa 1.
The participating countries include Namibia, Senegal, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Burkina Faso, Algeria, Kenya and Ivory Coast.
Zimbabwe have been paired with Ivory Coast, with the winner going through to the semi-final stage to meet the winner of the Burkina Faso and Namibia match.
The other route will require Zimbabwe to make it to the final two of the Africa Cup, and, God forbid, a loss in final will see them enter the Repechage tournament slated for November.
The four-team tournament will be played in round-robin format and act as the last chance for participants to make it to France 2023.
Now, with so much at stake and so little wiggle room, the Zimbabwe Rugby Union deserves a small pat on the pack for throwing everything but the kitchen sink to make their dream of qualifying for France 2023 a reality.
They have signed on the team to compete at this year’s Currie Cup First Division in South Africa, albeit under the Goshawks banner, and expanded the team’s technical department to include former Sables’ fly-half Piet Benade and renowned strength and conditioning coach Ghafoer Luckan.
For Sables skipper Hilton Mudariki, the one man who has been on the sidelines and has had a front-row view of all of the interventions, ZRU’s efforts have left the scrumhalf with a spring in his step.
The Sunday Mail Sport caught with Mudariki on the sidelines of last week’s Currie Cup announcement, during which he opened up on the threat Namibia pose and the impact both Benade and Luckan seem to have already had on the team. Namibia and Zimbabwe have a storied past on the rugby pitch, and while the fellow Southern African nation looks to have a leg up of the Sables, it is the skipper’s view that there are positives to be taken from their last meeting in Stellenbosch.
“We started very well in the final, we showed that we were competitive against Namibia, who have always been a bogey side of ours,” said Mudariki.
“The second half, specifically the last 20 to 25 minutes, let us down.
“That is something we need to work on going forward; we can’t let that happen at the World Cup qualifiers.
“That is going to be something we need to work on between now and the qualifiers.
“We know conditioning is going to be a big thing; rugby is an 80-minute game and we need to play for all those minutes.
“After the Stellenbosch tournament, we sat down as a team to analyse the game and pick the good from the bad,” he said.
Luckily for the skipper, Zimbabwe will have a consistent run of high-level competitive games at the Currie Cup First Division to perfect all that.
Zimbabwe is one of the four international teams that will compete in South Africa’s second-tier domestic rugby competition, alongside Kenya, Namibia and Georgia.
This is also the country’s return to South African domestic competition after they fielded a team in Supersport Rugby Challenge three years ago, playing under the name Zimbabwe Rugby Academy.
This time, however, they are going under the Goshawks banner.
“Game time is gold, you need it to improve and this is what we are aiming at in the lead-up to the qualifiers,” added the skipper.
“We are going to look at different players, try different combinations and it is an opportunity for us to add some depth into the squad.
“If you look at the Burkina Faso games, there were a couple of guys that came into that camp as invitation players and they pushed hard for places.
“That is what we want; we want the Sables to be as competitive as possible and that entails different players jostling for different positions at the same time.
“We want as much competition for players as possible, as that will push everybody to raise their game.”
The arrival of Benade and Luckan seems to have made an impression on Mudariki.
While the announcement was only made last week, the two were with the team in Stellenbosch last year.
“Luckan knows his stuff and he has brought in a lot of things within our training.
“He started working with us in Stellenbosch and I am very excited to be working with him.
“I have a lot of friends in the Springboks Sevens, and I had a chat with some of them about Luckan and there is nothing but glowing praise.
“The coaches also had a lot of meetings with Luckan and they also had nothing but good things to say about him.
“The guys have already bought into his training regime and into his vision about what strength and conditioning should be.”
It was more or less the same with former Sables fly-half Piet Benade.
“Piet is a great guy, a great rugby mind and he has brought in a lot of different things like ways of training, thinking and approach to plays and the game.
“If you look at a guy like Dudley White-Sharpley, he has definitely blossomed with Piet (Benade) coming onboard.
“We used Sharpley at fly-half in Stellenbosch; his talks with Piet helped improve his game,” said Mudariki.