The Sunday Mail
AFTER the turbulence that followed their acrimonious divorce with South African coach Peter De Villiers, calm has finally returned to the national game with the Zimbabwe Rugby Union revelling in the Sables’ resurgence.
The Sables have got off to a flying start under the guidance of their former captain Brendan Dawson and are now favourites to win the Victoria Cup.
Three wins on the bounce, which began with a home victory over Zambia at Harare Sports Club’s Machinery Exchange stadium, have set the Sables on a firm path to a Victoria Cup success.
The triumph over Zambia was followed by an away win over Uganda in Kampala and a close 31-29 victory against Kenya at Hartsfield in Bulawayo.
Under De Villiers, such a consistent run was a rarity. The former Springboks coach eventually left a mark, more for his noise in the administrative corridors than success on the pitch. De Villiers’ Sables tottered on the brink of relegation from the elite Rugby Africa Gold Cup when they should have been battling for a slot at the 2019 World Cup in Japan. His divorce with the ZRU was ugly and a sharp contrast to the glitz and glamour that had characterised his arrival on the domestic scene. Predictably, the perennial rabble rousers that are always ready to pounce on any negativity that hits domestic sport, latched onto the ZRU-PDV saga, stoked flames and even called for the union’s executive to step down.
To their credit, the ZRU leadership of Aaron Jani and his trusted deputies Losson Mtongwiza and Martin Shone remained resolute.
They focused on assembling a younger squad and sent Dawson and his men into the tough SuperSport Challenge League in South Africa.
The return on that investment has been an unbeaten run in the Victoria Cup and commendable shows in the SuperSport Challenge.
Jani told The Sunday Mail Sport that the Union’s decision to invest in Dawson’s young squad was based on a long-term vision of ensuring that Zimbabwe qualifies for the 2023 edition of the World Cup.
“After we made a decision to relieve PDV of his duties, there was a lot of debate on whether the Union had made the right decision. I think the results now speak for themselves, it seems like the ship has turned and we are now going in the right direction. We are happy that the results have vindicated us.
“There is still a lot of work to be done and we are hopeful that come 2022 when we do the qualifiers in the Gold Cup for the Word Cup, we will be ready for the task,’’ Jani said.
While Jani faced criticism for entering a largely Under-23 squad into the tough SuperSport challenge, where Zimbabwe finished winless, they squad’s perfomance still managed to charm some neutrals.
“Again there was a lot of debate and questions around the SuperSport Challenge – whether we had made the right decisions and whether the level of investment we had made around the SuperSport Challenge would pay off.
“We were very clear from the onset, that we wanted to provide quality game time. We also wanted the technical team to start breeding young players that could be incorporated into the Sables.
“lf you look at the Sables that have been playing, they are mostly young talent,’’ Jani said.
However, the ZRU boss admitted that not everything has been smooth sailing.
“The operating environment has been a major challenge for the Union. We have debt issues, legacy issues and on top of that, we had to finance the league, the SuperSport Challenge as well as the Victoria Cup. We are grateful that our sponsors have come through to assist us, in particular I would like to single out Zerttew and Titan Law, who have been our anchor sponsors.
“We enjoy cordial relations with our sponsors. They appreciate the effort that we are putting in improving the Sables and the game in general.
“The numbers are returning to rugby, the numbers are growing and we continue to urge other sponsors to come on board to finance our activities. We are not yet out of the woods and we still require their support.”
Jani highlighted that the women’s game needs more support.
“As far as the women’s game is concerned, we are not yet where we would like to be. For this season, we are grateful that we have managed to have two very competitive games – one between the Under 20s and South Africa and another one between the Lady Sables and Zambia.
‘We didn’t perform as well as we would have liked and I put it down to lack of game time. We need more game time for the ladies but structurally, it is very difficult to get quality game time for the ladies as we are only dealing with a few countries who have a full complement of women’s teams in the Sadc region.
“Where the Cheetahs are concerned, they have been doing very well. Some of our Cheetahs have been involved in the SuperSport Challenge and the Victoria cup.
“We expect their fitness and conditioning levels to be high when their season starts in a month or two. We also hope to pick up the momentum from last year when we won the Africa Cup.”
But for now, it is the Sables who are having fun in the sun. They are now eyeing a fourth straight win when they host the Uganda Cranes in a Victoria Cup reverse fixture at Harare Sports Club on Saturday.