ONE thing that immediately stands out from Zimbabwe Sevens rugby stalwart Wensley Mbanje — when you finally manage to convince him to talk about his sterling career — is his modesty and down to earth humility.
BY DANIEL NHAKANISO
Even though he is undoubtedly one of the most distinguished players of his generation — with three Rugby World Cup Sevens appearances and several HSBC Sevens World Series Bowl and Shield medals — Mbanje always prefers to put everything in the context of the team.
Bulawayo-born Mbanje was a key member of the world-class Cheetahs side, which held the world spellbound by punching well above their weight on the HSBC Sevens World Series circuit.
A prolific try scorer, who used his breakneck speed, sheer strength and an eye for the tryline to cause all sorts of problems for opposition players, the dreadlocked Mbanje always charmed the fans whenever the Cheetahs played.
When asked for the secret to his success, he was quick to deflect the limelight to his former colleagues and teammates in school and later club rugby, who he believes played a key role in his development and success in international rugby.
Born in Bulawayo on October 21 1981, Mbanje’s introduction to the sport came by chance when he accompanied his friend to a rugby training session at Milton Junior School.
“Back then, I had a totally different attitude towards rugby but my best friend then Kudakwashe Matenga had a strong liking for the sport. Because we were very close, on certain days I would wait for him while he trained, but on one particular day most players did not pitch up for training,” he says.
By his own admission, Mbanje didn’t fancy the contact team sport then and it took some convincing for him to eventually take it up.
“It took quite some convincing before I could concur with joining the training proceedings, so I went from being a spectator to being handed down a few rules and handling myself well. It was hard for anyone to believe I was a first timer, but because I had no interest in being a part of it, I got punished frequently for my lack of interest towards trainings or games,” he said.
“The female teacher who was coaching the team at that time firmly believed I had a gift and she was determined to make sure I pursued rugby. It was so bad that at one point, every 20 minutes before school ended I would have to switch classes and be held like a hostage so that I would not abscond training or games. Eventually I grew tired of the punishment and the switching of classes and voluntarily agreed to attend training sessions.”
After progressing to Milton High School, Mbanje’s family briefly relocated to Harare, which saw him move to Allan Wilson High School for a year before returning to Milton — then a power house in local schools rugby.
Although athletics and basketball were his preferred choice of sports in high school, so good was Mbanje in rugby that by the time he reached his final year at Milton, he was already rubbing shoulders with top players such as Brendan Dawson and Jeff Tigere at Old Miltonians.
“It was in my last year of high school that rugby changed things for me. Our coach then, Nkathazo Ndlovu was playing for Old Miltonians and he suggested we could play club rugby.
“His confidence in us led me, Norman Mukondiwa (South Africa-based Sables eighthman), and a handful of school boys to survive in an extremely competitive league. His gamble paid off well because the following year, I got my men’s provincial colours and was called into the national team,” he said.
“I had the most comfortable transition into club rugby because of the likes of Vusi Ndebele, Theo Weale and Emmanuel Mukandi. Getting to play alongside rugby greats like Dawson and (Victor) Olonga was so memorable and priceless.”
Mbanje recalls how it was only after breaking through to the senior national team that he realised the potential he had to follow into the footsteps of some of the sport’s leading players such as Olonga as well as the legendary flyhalf Kennedy Tsimba.
“I remember growing up and owing to the sense of wanting to achieve; having seen great people do great things and athletes excelling, I desired to be that relevant. Now that I was part of the national team, I wanted to expand. I recall Victor Olonga and Kennedy Tsimba being the only players I knew that were playing outside the country, and what made Victor more unique was how he constantly returned home during his off-seasons to come play.
“Jeff Tigere, who was my team captain then, left with Costa Dinha — such experienced players rewarded by a deserving move and you start to question the distance you need to cover in order to get to that level.”
“Then Tonderai Chavhanga also started making it big, and this was a player I had played against while we were at school. and now that my peers were making it, and setting standards, that’s the direction I needed to be heading towards, but because it wasn’t that easy then to break through, it made me realise and appreciate how these athletes made the best of the smallest of opportunities.”
After setting the domestic rugby scene alight, Mbanje moved to England where he had a stint at Sheffield Rugby Club before relocating to South Africa.
It was in South Africa that Mbanje established himself as one of Zimbabwe’s top rugby exports, briefly featuring for Border Bulldogs and Valke, then a South African Currie Cup club, Western Province Club Rugby and later the Johannesburg-based club Raiders.
But by the time he was based in South Africa, Mbanje was already a key member of the Cheetahs side — arguably the best sevens team the country has produced in history.
“Credit should go to [ex-Zimbabwe Rugby Union president and Cheetahs team manager] Bruce Hobson for his persistence in getting the Zimbabwe Sevens rugby functioning again. Wanting the Zimbabwe Sevens rugby team to compete at a higher level gave us the platform to showcase our talents to the world.
“We were also lucky to have good coaches in Gilbert Nyamutsamba and Liam Middleton; them, together with Hobson, were just the perfect match, unquestionably. So often they worked with nothing and made something out of it.”
Mbanje feels the different special qualities among the different players in the Cheetahs setup at the time made them a formidable side, which could compete against the best sides in the world.
“Players like Danny Hondo, Jacques Leitao, Fortune Chipendu, Rueben Kumpasa, Prayer Chitenderu, TJ Chifokoyo and Norman Mukondiwa had the perfect body language for games, that was well complemented with a hint of leadership. The likes of Tangai Nemadire, Gerald Sibanda, Gardner Nechironga, Kilvan Magunje, and Silethokuhle Ndlovu always had that fire and fuel while the others like Lucky Sithole, Victor Chiwara and Stephen Hunduza have such admirable work ethics; it’s an endless list of names that have played in my favour,” Mbanje said.
Two months ago, Mbanje celebrated his 36th birthday and with his rugby days seemingly behind him, he refused to accept the tag that he is now retired as he feels he still has a lot to offer to the game.
“I’m not really quite accomplished by the word retired, I know I get quizzed about it frequently, but nothing scares me more than saying one thing and waking up the next day driven by fresh ambitions and stronger convictions that leave me facing a cocktail of contradictions and conflicting statements.”
“I’m such a competitive soul and insistently view impossibilities as the possibilities of making things possible; after all, the best solutions come out from the worst situations. So being the person I am, I’m constantly looking for excuses to expand and grow.”
With a return to the Cheetahs lineup now looking highly unlikely, Mbanje looks set to remain a key figure in the Zimbabwe Sevens setup for many more years to come.
Early this year, the former star was roped in to the Cheetahs technical team headed by Nyamutsamba to pass on his experience to the younger players ahead of the Kwese Sports Victoria Sevens, where he also made some cameo appearances for the president’s VII side.
“Rugby was just a way to introduce me to the world, and I would like to use every inch of respect I can get from having played for the national team to get around in places I would have not had any chance to get around. My success is beyond being personal property and I would like to view it as an instrument to someone else’s success. My success is my access card and passport to more responsibilities,” Mbanje declared.