THE Zimbabwe rugby community is in an upbeat mood following last week’s appointment of Peter de Villiers as the Sables coach.
Many hope the former Springboks supremo will help bring some desperately needed respite after a prolonged period of turmoil and underachievement.
From Zimbabwe Rugby Union (ZRU) officials to Sports Minister Kazembe Kazembe and a few Sables legends, everyone seems convinced Zimbabwe are now on a path to recovery in the wake of De Villiers’ appointment.
The man himself will have little time to acclimatise as he plunges straight into battle in the Rugby Africa Gold Cup, which this year assumes the added significance of determining the continent’s representatives at next year’s Rugby World Cup in Japan.
The Sables have fared dismally in the competition over the last two editions and the hope is that De Villiers’ arrival, along with the general positivity enveloping the sport since the ushering in of a new administration last December, will spark an uptick in fortunes.
De Villiers has wasted no time in getting down to business, flying to South Africa just two days after his appointment to begin the task of persuading Zimbabwe’s foreign-based players to return to the fold.
Attracting top talent based in foreign leagues has proved a huge challenge for Zimbabwe, with lack of finances coupled with a general sense of despondency playing a huge role in turning off many stars.
Former Zimbabwe internationals Brendon Dawson, Kennedy Tsimba, and Costa Dinha foresee a change of attitude in the De Villiers era.
Dawson, one of the few people to have captained and coached the Sables in the past, will be assistant to De Villiers. He is confident that brighter days are on the horizon.
“We now have a coach that people aspire to be coached by, and that’s why we are hoping that those players outside the country now look at it and say, ‘well the structures are there, the money, the systems are all put in place. There is a top-level coach involved, let’s go back to Zimbabwe,’” Dawson said in interview aired on local radio station SpotFM.
Tsimba, who had a successful career in South Africa, told KweséESPN that De Villiers would “certainly bring some interest to Zim rugby with his profile and I am positive we now have a good chance in the World Cup qualifiers”.
Zimbabwe rugby fans have endured the most punishing of experiences in recent years as the Sables completed a stunning transformation from being one of the leading lights in continental rugby to a virtual punch-bag.
Things have turned particularly hopeless over the last two years, with Zimbabwe emerging bottom of the pile without a single win in the 2016 Africa Cup Division 1A. An expansion of the elite group to six teams in 2017 brought no relief for the Sables, who still finished second-bottom with only newly-promoted Senegal faring worse.
Sables great Dinha told KweséESPN that it is “organising the talent to perform in terms of preparations, welfare and incentives that has been letting us down”.
It is now De Villiers’ task to oversee a massive improvement if Zimbabwe are to finish a minimum of second in the Gold Cup and qualify for the Repechage process to face teams from Europe, Asia and South America for a World Cup ticket.
The first-place finishers in the Gold Cup earn automatic qualification for the 2019 World Cup in Japan. Zimbabwe last qualified for the World Cup in 1991.
Outgoing coach Cyprian Mandenge is, however, warning against putting too much faith in one man in an environment which he says had left him unsupported during his reign.
“Our gold Cup campaign last year had no chances of success from the onset as I lacked support from the union,” Mandenge told the Sunday Mail.
Mandenge is also disappointed that “there were no exit interviews to try and find out our thoughts, experiences and challenges”.
“There is a need to understand that no man is perfect and for us to grow, the support and active participation from every stakeholder, past and present, will be needed.”
Others, however, are not holding back in expressing their expectations, with Kazembe Kazembe stepping in to laud the ZRU for showing “sound administration”.
“They (the ZRU) have shown that if you intend to become one of the best, you have got to bring the best coaches and De Villiers is one of the best coaches in this game,” Kazembe said when the rugby officials took De Villiers to his offices for formal introductions.
The Rugby Africa Gold Cup starts on June 16, with the Sables taking on Morocco in their opening fixture. — KweséESPN