The Zimbabwean international rugby team played in both of the first two Rugby World Cup tournaments, in 1987 and 1991, but since then the competition has only held disappointment for ‘The Sables’ who have not qualified for any subsequent event.
In a very large part, this has been due to the ‘Zimbabwean diaspora’, caused by a range of political and economic factors, which led to many individuals and families choosing to leave the country to pursue their ambitions in a more stable environment. This has obviously affected all sports – indeed, all aspects of society – but few have been hit harder than rugby union.
You only have to look at the players who could, in other circumstances, have represented Zimbabwe over the past 20-30 years or so to get an idea of the scale of this talent drain. David Pocock, who as one of the best back-row forwards in the world played many tests for the Wallabies, is a Zimbabwean, as is Tendai Mtawarira (“the Beast”) who was a mainstay of the Springboks scrum for many years. Adrian Garvey was another prop who actually played for Zimbabwe in the 1991 tournament before finding further success as a Springbok, as did flanker Bobby Skinstat who’s professional career saw him play for South Africa before being cut short by injury.
Gary Teichmann skippered the Boks from 1995 to 1999, a period considered by many to be the high-point of the South African national team, during which they recorded 17 consecutive international victories, including record wins over Australia, Scotland, Wales and France.
Closer to home. players like David Denton, Don Armand and Dave Ewers are all Zimbabweans, while Hartpury was very proud to play a part in the rise of Sebastian Negri, now with Benetton and Italy – Seb was born and spent his early years in Harare, Zimbabwe, before attending school in South Africa.
Now, the Sables are on the qualification trail once again and, with an upturn in form and results over the past couple of years, they harbour firm hopes of making it to RWC 2023 in France.
They are being helped in that endeavour by no fewer than four people with strong Hartpury connections.
On the playing side, the squad includes back row forward, Aiden Burnett, who studied at Hartpury from 2015 until 2019. Aiden joined us from St John’s College in Harare and, after completing an Access to Higher Education diploma, he went on to complete a Bachelor’s degree in Sports Business Management. During that period he played extensively in university rugby and was part of the team that won the BUCS Super Rugby play-off at Twickenham in his final year. After leaving the university he signed for National One side Bishop’s Stortford ahead of the 2019-20 season.
Also in the squad is three-quarter Matt McNab. Matt also studied Sports Business Management and has just graduated this year. Matt, who was at Falcon College near Bulawayo before joining Hartpury, unfortunately had much of his later student rugby career written off by the Covid pandemic, after breaking into the university 1st XV during the truncated 2019-20 season. Fortunately, the introduction of the new MSc Sports Management Master’s programme means that Matt has the opportunity to come back to Hartpury for a little while longer and enjoy at least one more season in the Red & Black as he looks for further opportunities at a professional level.
Meanwhile, among the coaching staff are two guys who are part of Hartpury rugby history.
Supporters from a somewhat earlier era will remember Danny Hondo, who was a Sports Coaching student at the university in the mid-2000s. Danny was a speedy outside centre who was part of the team that brought back Hartpury’s first ever BUCS (then BUSA) trophy from Twickenham in 2007. He was also selected for British Universities during his time here. He became a regular member, and eventually skipper, of the Zimbabwean national team and was also heavily involved, as both a player and coach, with the ‘Cheetahs’, which is the the 7s squad.
Forwards coach to that BUSA-winning group, working under the legendary Allan Lewis, was Liam ‘Laddie’ Middleton. Although Liam did not study at Hartpury, we were part of the launching pad that later took him onto to senior coaching roles with Bristol Rugby (in the pre-Bears days) and the Canadian national 7s outfit, based in British Columbia. He spent a number of seasons coaching at Hartpury, across both age groups, and also coached British Universities.
Back to the present day and Danny is coaching the Sables backs, while Liam looks after the defence.
The road to France will not be an easy one. After advancing from the pool stages unscathed, Zimbabwe will join seven other teams from all the groups will then go into a straight knock out tournament in 2022, with the winners advancing automatically to RWC 2023. The runners-up in Africa Cup 2022 will get one last shot, through a final qualification tournament with other hopefuls from around the world.