BY DANIEL NHAKANISO
HE might still be in the early stages of his career, but Sables tighthead prop Cleopas Kundiona Jr’s attributes have already earned him comparisons with the recordbreaking Zimbabwe-born former Springboks star Tendai Mtawarira, who last year retired from the international game on a high after guiding South Africa to World Cup glory.
The legendary Mtawarira, known to world rugby as the Beast, will go down in history as one of the most accomplished players of the professional era after a storied career with the Springboks and his franchise the Sharks.
The Beast certainly raised the bar. But it seems, to some of his countrymen, it’s one that’s not too far out of reach.
One emerging Zimbabwean rugby star, who seems determined to follow in the footsteps of the legendary Mtawarira is the hugely talented 21-year-old Kundiona Jr, who earned two Test caps for the Sables in 2018 as a teenager.
Kundiona Jr was only 20 years old — the same age as when Beast joined the Sharks 14 years ago — when he was unveiled at the famous Durban franchise in May last year on a first-class contract.
The exciting Zimbabwe international — who is a strong ball carrier, top scrummager and defensive rock on the loose —was initially expected to feature for the side’s Under-21 and Currie Cup side after his arrival at the Sharks’ Kings Park Stadium in Durban.
But such has been his rapid development in such a short space of time that he was last week included in the Sharks’ 44-man squad for the Vodacom Super Rugby Unlocked which kicked off on Friday.
The Super Rugby Unlocked, which will run until November 21, replaces the South African component of the incomplete 2020 Super Rugby season that was shut down in March due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Organised by the South African Rugby Union, the seven-team domestic competition features the Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers from Super Rugby, with the addition of the Cheetahs, Griquas and Pumas.
Although Kundiona did not make the final 23-man squad for Sharks’ tournament opener against Lions, which they won 19-16 on Friday night, he is expected to get an opportunity to earn his Super Rugby bow after catching the eye of the Durban side’s head coach Sean Everitt with his progress over the last few months.
After breaking into the expanded squad, the Zimbabwean will have to work hard to break into the matchday squad as he is still behind the likes of Springbok tighthead Thomas ‘Tank’ du Toit, John-Hubert Meyer and Mzamo Majola in the team’s options at tighthead.
Kundiona’s father Cleopas Kundiona Sr, who he is named after, said he was proud of his son’s achievements at the Sharks in such a short space of time and believes he will keep scaling bigger heights in world rugby.
“As a parent, I am very proud of what he has managed to become in a very short time. When he left to join the Sharks last year he said he wanted to work hard to become one of the best players in the world and the hard work has been paying off and the sky is the limit. He wants to be one of the best not only in Africa, but the whole world and as parents we are fully behind him,” said Kundiona Sr, a veteran educationist and politician.
Kundiona was schooled first at Lendy Park Primary School in Marondera before proceeding to Falcon College; where he went on to earn selection for the Craven Week twice with Zimbabwe Schools in 2015 and 206.
“Falcon is where I learnt and developed my craft,” Kundiona said in an interview with our sister paper Zimbabwe Independent last year.
“I’m eternally grateful for that. “Rugby didn’t come naturally for me. There were lots of ups and downs. I was very lucky to have lots of inspirational characters; the list will be too long if I was to name them.”
The ex-Falcon College student is one of the two players with Zimbabwean links in the Sharks squad for the new tournament together with South Africa-born Michael Kumbirai.
Kumbirai, who also plays in the front row, joined Sharks early this year from the Cape Town franchise Stormers in a move that coincided with Mtawarira’s departure after leading South Africa to World Cup glory in Japan.
Prior to his move to the Sharks, Kumbirai (24) had been part of the Western Province set-up since moving from Pretoria in 2015, featuring regularly in the Vodacom Cup and the Currie Cup, but struggled to break into the franchise’s Super Rugby outfit the Stormers last year.
Having been on the fringes of the Stormers side, Kumbirai will be eager to make an impression at the Durban franchise, where he could team up alongside his compatriot Kundiona at the same club where Mtawarira earned his greatness.