ZIMBABWE’s sevens rugby team faces a defining season on the continent this year, starting with a Moroccan tour at the weekend and culminating in the World Cup qualifiers in Tunisia in August.
The Cheetahs’ African safari kick-starts with the Tangier Sevens in Morocco where they left for on Wednesday, followed by the Castle Lager Sevens in Zambia, the Tusker Sevens in Kenya, and finally the regional World Cup qualifying tournament up north.
There is also the whistle-stop IRB World Sevens Series tournaments at the end of the year.
But it is the World Cup qualifiers which excite the Cheetahs the most.
Zimbabwe have made huge strides in the shorter version of the game, perhaps even surprising themselves, to drill a young, tremendously-skilled national side that has left onlookers on many of their international tours wondering how this is possible under adverse economic and social conditions at home.
A World Cup qualification is, consequently, seen as the ultimate achievement for the Cheetahs to cap their efforts and successes of the last five years.
Zimbabwe last played in the Sevens World Cup in 2001 in Argentina.
Local sevens then disappeared from the scene for a while, before the current evolution started in 2003.
Having been exposed to top international sevens rugby for four years, Cheetahs players view World Cup qualification as “obligatory”, said experienced forward Fortune Chipendo.
“Guys want to play in the World Cup,” said Chipendo. “We are one of the top three sides on the continent and with four slots reserved for African teams, we really must qualify.”
Chipendo, who is back home on off-season break from the UK, said despite the World Cup being the main attraction, the team was not losing focus of the other tournaments on the African circuit.
“We definitely want to do well in the African tournaments as well. We have played fantastic rugby there before and have produced some brilliant results. We must maintain that.”
Last year, Zimbabwe went through to the final of Kenya’s Tusker Sevens, the largest sevens event on the continent. After beating the hosts in front of a strong 10 000 home crowd in the semi-finals in Nairobi, they lost an entertaining final to the Emerging Springboks.
In Zambia, the Cheetahs beat Mpumalanga in the final to win the Castle Lager Sevens tournament, formerly known as the Mosi Sevens.
Meanwhile, a 12-man squad has been named for the Cheetahs’ second successive trip to Morocco, where they lost in the final of the cup division to France last year.
Zimbabwe, who are still missing prolific winger Wes Mbanje through injury, also toured without South Africa-based backs Cleopas Makotose and Tangai Nemadire.
National XVs captain Makotose and compatriot Nemadire are being excused to allow them to settle at their Cape Town club, Fchotsche Kloof Walmers, who they joined at the beginning of the season from Golden Lions first league clubs in Johannesburg.
However, talented UK-based centre Daniel Hondo, and veteran playmaker Neill Nortje, who are both expected to play crucial roles for the Cheetahs in this year’s campaign, are in Casablanca.
Â Squad for Morocco tour:
Jacques Leitao (captain), Fortune Chipendo, Grant Mitchell, Willis Magasa, Daniel Hondo, Manasah Sita, Alex Ndangana, Tendai Takavarasha, Happy Nyatanga, Neill Nortje, Roland Benade and Slater Ndlovu.