GROWING up in Zimbabwe’s oldest high-density suburb of Mbare, it was only natural that physically active Ryan Phiri would opt to play football in junior school.
BY BY KENNEDY NYAVAYA
Located on the southern parts of the capital city, Harare, the residential area produced so much talent in the post-colonial era, with the most popular among sporting disciplines till today being the supposedly world’s most beautiful game.
While Phiri may have been right in realising that his future was on the sporting field, he had never anticipated it being in the “hooligan game played by gentlemen”— rugby.
“I started playing rugby in 2009 for Mbare Academy before it was named Mbare Junior Rugby Academy,” chronicles Phiri, whose major influence to shift to rugby was his close friend, the Zimbabwe junior international Shingirai Katsvere.
“I was motivated by Shingirai Katsvere whom I used to play soccer with for Adbernnie Primary School before he switched to rugby,” Phiri said.
It also took influence from the Mbare Academy side’s coach Victor Pekani, who highlighted the “benefits of this contact sport”, with the first try in his debut appearance in 2010 sealing the deal.
“My first match was in Hartsfield [Bulawayo rugby festival] when I had to replace someone who was injured [and] I went in as a wing with only three minutes left; despite that I had only trained two days before this match, I scored my first try,” he recalled.
Little did he know that the modest beginnings would take him all the way through senior school on scholarships to reputable South African Premier Division Currie Cup side Steval Pumas, where he is presently playing for their Under-20 team.
Presence on the pitch for the academy became a regular feature but owing to circumstances in the Mbare camp which forced him out, he went for trials at Prince Edward School, where he was received with both hands.
“Due to differences after Form 4, I had to go for trials at Prince Edward where I met coach Shaun De Souza and he was very welcoming and gave me a chance at trial,” he explained.
Ironically he suffered an ankle injury while playing against Mbare, which almost ended his career prematurely. The injury in 2015, however, became his eureka moment.
“I did my best and he (De Souza) was impressed so I was selected and enrolled. however, I got injured early in the season during a 7s game against Mbare Academy and although we went on to win the trophy, I stayed for four months off the pitch.”
Ruled out for four months and in the process missing a crucial pre-season tour of Namibia as well as the possible reality of having his bursary revoked, Phiri was getting frustrated as each day passed.
“Things were tough and it was a rough patch. I got to a point where I considered the idea of repeating and going to study somewhere where I would stop playing rugby, but God had other plans.”
At that point, even his supportive parents were starting to encourage on the prospects of him pursuing his education.
While the idea of quitting filled his head, another friend, Michael Matenga suggested during the school holidays that they go to the other side of the Limpopo River to try their luck in what he recalls to have been the toughest period of his life to date during which they at one point slept on the streets.
“We had the toughest three weeks of our lives because we did not know any place; we were just led by faith. fortunately, we were eventually led to Middleburg High School,” he said.
“It was a surprise that we made it because the guys were bigger and faster but we played well and we got full bursaries.”
From 2015 up to last year, he played for Middleburg as he concurrently turned up for Pumas Academy under 18 and 19 A squads.
Despite good field performances earning him school accolades in addition to impressive academic results, he again got stranded as university offers could not be allowed because of his foreign citizenship, forcing him to come back home.
However, impressed by his talent, Phiri’s former coach Christo van Niekerk notified him of the trials this year and as usual, he managed to redeem his career, which was on a nosedive.
Currently doing well in the pink and grey (Pumas’ traditional colours), his hopes are to fly even higher to the length and breadth his talent can take him.
“I am expecting to play rugby professionally, go overseas because there is a lot of competition in South Africa, which is not bad, but making it is really difficult,” he says.
With a vision to one day play in the most competitive rugby stage worldwide, the Super Rugby competition, does he see himself ever donning national colours?
“There is definitely a chance of playing if I am still fit and able because it is always good for one to serve their country.”