FORGET the Springboks Chavhanga, Mujati and Mtawarira or the US flying Eagle Ngwenya. Which are the best current Zimbabwean rugby players, that is, by both birth and allegiance?
This is a question that definitely stirs enthralling debate in local rugby circles. But one thing that will not be debated is that Daniel Hondo and Wes Mbanje, the two Zimbabwe Sevens stars currently in Kenya with the team for the popular Tusker Safari Sevens tournament, make the grade.
Centre Hondo and winger Mbanje, based in the UK and South Africa respectively, tell of how they became rugby players by chance.
“I was actually forced into the game,” admits Hondo. “The sports master at Churchill, the late Mr (Peter) Sharples, saw me playing cricket and thought my flexible hands would be good for rugby.”
It so happened the legendary sports scout Sharples had moved to Churchill from Queensdale primary, where Hondo started off.
Bulawayo-born Mbanje (first name spelt W-e-n-s-l-e-y) says: “As a kid I was a good soccer player. I accompanied a friend to rugby practice at Milton Junior School and they were short on numbers. So they asked me to play as a place-holder. So on match day, the coach was like ‘where is that guy? He was actually good yesterday. He must play for us’. That’s how I become a rugby player.”
For 26-year-old Tendayi Daniel Hondo, sports is part and parcel of his family. His brother Douglas, a schoolboy rugby ace himself, is the former Zimbabwe Test cricketer, now based in the UK.
Daniel played cricket for the Zimbabwe Under 13s in his first year at Churchill. But when rugby took over, the changeover was routine. He represented Zimbabwe at both Under 18 and Under 21s levels, and by the time he left school, he was already a Harare Sports Club first team player.
“It was scary coming from schoolboy rugby and suddenly having to play with the big boys,” Hondo says. “But John Ewing, who was the other centre at Sports Club, cooled me down. He said ‘if you have confidence you’II be fine’. He helped me adjust to the demands of senior rugby.”
Hondo matured faster, helped by the assuring presence of the stalwart Sables centre Ewing, who was also his midfield partner when he won three Zimbabwe XVs caps in 2004.
In September 2004, he was offered a rugby scholarship at Hartpury College, one of Britain’s leading sporting colleges.
“It was different; raining, wet, cold,” he says. “And the way they play rugby is different.”
His fellow countryman and Zimbabwe Sevens coach, Liam Middleton, is the Hartpury coach, and he was recently joined at the Gloucester institute by fellow Zimbabwean players Roland Benade and former Zimbabwe Under 19 captain Andrew Rose, who represented Scotland at the ongoing Junior World Championship in Wales.
David Crouch, the other Zimbabwean at the College, has stopped playing rugby.
Hartpury has won the British University Championship for the past two years, beating Loughborough University in this year’s final at England’s famous Twickenham Stadium.
“We were not surprised to achieve the back-to-back victories,” he says. “When we play league rugby we beat everyone, so when we went to the final confidence was at an all-time high. Hartpury always recruit the best rugby players from Britain and some guys from South Africa, so we are always expected to do well.”
Hondo graduates with a BSc in Sports Conditioning and Coaching at the end of the year. Having completed his studies, the robust centre is hoping to join a professional club in the UK soon.
“I am more of a defensive player,” Hondo describes himself. “I can attack, but you will not see me scoring tries. I create for others. But sometimes in Sevens they use me as a playmaker and I am cool with it.”
Hondo is similar to his older brother, being both on the quiet side, but then having less of Douglas’ glamorous and outgoing lifestyle.
“He kind of drives me,” he says. “If he does well you want to do well too. We played in the same rugby and cricket teams at school and there is always a special bond between us. He’s always supported me and in April he came to watch my final at Twickenham.”
Being part of the world-class Cheetahs gives Hondo extra pride in representing Zimbabwe on the international stage.
“It’s a wonderful team and we are all proud to be part of it,” he says. “We try to be professional in kit, training and conditioning. We look at the other teams that are professional and try to be like them.”
Middleton says of Hondo: “Danny is our most consistent performer. He is a solid player. He makes few errors. He is an exceptional in defence both in tackling and in one-on-one situations. He is the field marshall of our defence. He is very important to Zimbabwe rugby. He is a strong lad at 92 kg; he has skill; he is fast. He is a pillar of the side.”
Like Hondo, Mbanje was groomed as a centre since school, but then relying more on sheer pace.
Again, like Hondo, Mbanje played club rugby in his last year at school, at Milton High, joining up “heavies” such as Brendan Dawson and Jeff Tigere at Old Miltonians.
“It was hard,” he says. “Club rugby then was still okay. The older guys at my club taught us the ropes of club rugby the hardest way.”
A modest character, when he talks about himself, its always in the context of the team.
He says: “We used to lose to clubs. Now we are going into games against New Zealand and competing. Back then if we played New Zealand we would get cricket scores. We’ve got depth in the side now.”
Middleton’s verdict: “Wes is obviously very fast. He is evasive. It is very much an instinct thing which is difficult to coach. He finds space between people. He is quiet off the field but very, very competitive on it. He likes to win. He is a world-class player who can fit in any team.
“When I took over he was an average player. I actually dropped him for my second tour in charge. He has grown immensely and his understanding of the game is now brilliant. He has been the revelation of Zimbabwe rugby for the past four years. He has had problems with injuries. It’s good to have him back. I think Zimbabwe rugby is fortunate to have a player of his calibre.”
By Enock Muchinjo