Michael Kumbirai’s rapid rise up the South African rugby ranks has been nothing short of remarkable.
BY DANIEL NHAKANISO
Less than 12 months ago, the 21-year-old tighthead prop had not even started a professional rugby game in South Africa.
Now Kumbirai is already on the verge of making his Super Rugby debut and dreaming of fulfilling his childhood dream of playing for the Springboks after a memorable debut season in the senior ranks with the Cape Town rugby union outfit Western Province.
The rising star was a key member of the Western Province side which won the inaugural edition of the SuperSport Rugby Challenge and went on to make a number of Currie Cup appearances for the Cape Town-based franchise which went on to win the prestigious cup competition.
“My season in 2017 started off with huge goals. I wanted to win the Varsity Cup, be the Forward that Rocks of that tournament, make my Super Rugby debut and really impress and end the season of by then making my Currie Cup debut for Western Province and contribute to a winning season for all competitions I was involved in,” Kumbirai told the Sports Hub in an exclusive interview last week.
“I shot for the moon and gratefully landed among the stars not achieving all my goals but being blessed enough to play in the final of the Supersport Rugby Challenge and win my first ever Gold medal in rugby.
“I also got to make my Currie Cup debut and be a part of a history with a great group of guys who went on to win the competition after I suffered an injury to back with about four games left in the season,” he said.
Kumbirai — who was born in Pretoria, South Africa to Zimbabwean parents — impressed throughout last year with his scrummaging ability, while the big, abrasive forward also proved to be a strong ball-carrier.
While his rapid rise has caused excitement within the Zimbabwe rugby fraternity due to his eligibility to feature for the Sables, Kumbirai is instead dreaming bigger and already has his sights on an international career with the Springboks.
This would see him follow in the footsteps of the likes of the legendary Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira, Brian Mujati and Tonderai Chavhanga who have all represented South Africa since the turn of the millennium.
The other ex-Rhodesians or Zimbabweans to feature for the Springboks included Salty du Rand, Robertson, Bob Skinstad, Ray Mordt, Ryk van Schoor, Piet Greyling, Gary Tiechmann, Des van Jaarsveldt, David Smith, Chris Rogers, Andy McDonald, and Adrian Garvey.
Kumbirai, who looks set to follow the same path, has dreamt of donning the fabled green-and-gold jersey since being selected into the South Africa Schools rugby side in 2014 before suffering a broken ankle in the final training session leading up the team’s first game against France.
“I’ve had my sights set on playing for the Springboks ever since I made that SA Schools team. To be able to replicate the pride I felt in that moment and to actually run out on an even bigger stage is a dream I simply just can’t let go of. It’s what drives me,” said Kumbirai.
Kumbirai will be eager to make an impression in his debut campaign in the Super Rugby competition this season to enhance his chances of earning selection for the Springboks in the near future.
The rising star, who last season understudied Springboks prop Wilco Louw during the successful Currie Cup campaign was rewarded for his rapid rise by being named in the Stormers’ Super Rugby squad.
“This year the main target is to train myself into the best physical condition humanly possible….I just want to be the best version of Michael Kumbirai to date this year. I know it will require massive discipline but I embrace the challenge. Hopefully this process allows me to make my Super Rugby debut for the Stormers this season as this has been a dream of mine for the longest time,” he said.
Born 21 years ago in Pretoria’s leafy suburb of Arcadia to Zimbabwean parents Joyce (a retired business excecutive) and Peter (a successful orthopedic surgeon), Kumbirai is the third born in a family of four.
Although he was born and raised in South Africa, Kumbirai remains proud of his Zimbabwean roots, describing his parents as “hardworking immigrants from Zimbabwe who have made a beautiful success of their life’s journey from Zimbabwe to South Africa.”
Kumbirai says it was because of his parents’ hard work that he was able to get exposed to the sport at some of the best private schools in South Africa.
“Through their hard work I was able to attend good schools in Pretoria, which gave me the opportunity to play sports at my primary school, Waterkloof House Preparatory School in Pretoria,” Kumbirai said.
“It’s here [Waterkloof House Preparatory school] where I first began to play rugby in Grade 5 as touch rugby had a compulsory season with contact rugby being optional to those who dared brave the sport. I was pretty obese as a child growing up and would probably still if it wasn’t for sport, but that extra weight I carried at the time was perfect to set me up to be a front row forward and I haven’t played any other position since,” he said.
While Kumbirai’s first introduction to the sport came at Waterkloof House Preparatory School. it was at St. Albans College where he made his biggest impression, earning selection to the Blue Bulls for the 2014 Craven Week and ultimately SA Schools selection.
“I continued playing rugby in high school at St. Alban’s College, also in Pretoria. it’s here when I began to make provincial sides representing the Blue Bulls at the U-16 Grant Khomo Week in 2012 and at Craven Week in 2014. I went on to make the SA Schools team in 2014 but broke my ankle in the final training session leading up to our first game against France. I was offered a place at the Western Province Rugby Institute in 2015 and have been a part of Western Province ever since,” he said.
Originally utilised as a loose head prop, Western Province developed him into a tighthead and Kumbirai was one of the few U-19s called up to the Baby Boks training camp in 2015.
Western Province later named Kumbirai the U-19 Forward of the Year for 2015, further cementing his place in the Western Province structures, both in the U-21 Currie Cup and for the UCT keys in their Varsity Cup campaign.
“I would say first and foremost God has been most influential as he has provided me with the opportunity to display the talents he’s bestowed upon me and he is there for me in times of joy and sorrow, be it winning trophies or suffering long term injuries. I pray and he answers one way or another,” Kumbirai says on the biggest influences in his career.
“I think coaches come next as they are they’re the ones that made me believe in my potential. Coach David Mukhari from St Alban’s is responsible for a lot of my progress through high school; he took the fear out of the game for me and prepared me mentally for what was to come as a professional.
“Coach Rito Hlungwani during my U-19 year gave me the confidence I needed to really believe that I could play at the highest level, and I do owe my progress as a scrummager to coach Hanyani Shimange’s tough love. This progress is essentially what allowed me to be able to play at a senior level.”
Last year Kumbirai and Springboks player Wilco Louw earned the praises of Western Province head coach John Dobson, who was impressed by the duo’s rapid development in one of the game’s most physically demanding positions.
“We’re used to tightheads maturing at 28 or 29, and in the case of Wilco you’re talking about a 23-year-old and in the case of Michael you’re talking about a 20-year-old. So these guys have got big futures as props,” Dobson said.
Kumbirai said he was also grateful for Dobson’s faith in his abilities after he gave him his first cap at senior level.
“Coach John Dobson taught me everything I know about a breakdown and a maul which is important for a prop, he also gave me the opportunity to play my first game at a senior level and I can’t thank him enough for believing in me. Coach Dawie Snyman taught me how to carry and play rugby and Norman Laker taught me about defence in all its glory and passion and for that I will be forever grateful,” he said.
Michael Kumbirai fact file:
Full name: Michael Masimba Tingini
Position: Tighthead prop
Height: 188 cm
Weight: 123 kg
Birth date: May 9, 1996
Birth place: Arcadia, Pretoria
Current team: DHL Stormers
Other teams: Western Province
2016: Western Province (U-21 Currie Cup), UCT (Varsity Cup)
2015: Western Province (U-19 Currie Cup)
2014: SA Schools, Blue Bulls (U-18 Craven Week)
2012: Blue Bulls (U-16 Grant Khomo Week)