columnBy Enoch Muchinjo
A CRUCIAL year for the Zimbabwe rugby team lies ahead, one in which the Sables must make strides in reaffirming their status as one of the top sides in Africa.
This year, the Confederation of African Rugby (CAR) has decided to use its flagship tournament, the Africa Cup, also known as the Top Nine competition, as the first stage of IRB World Cup qualifiers for the 2011 showpiece.
If Zimbabwe are to avoid another painful exit from the qualifiers, rugby authorities must work flat out to rebuild a strong Sables that will not grind under pressure from the ever-improving national sides on the continent.
A top-two group finish in the CAR tournament is required to progress to the next stage of the World Cup qualifiers in 2009.
Crucially, Zimbabwe rugby chiefs should receive the CAR decision with the emergency it calls for, and bear in mind that anything short of passage to the next round will be utterly unacceptable to the long-yearning Zimbabwean rugby followers.
The Zimbabwe Rugby Union (ZRU) has a five-year plan in which it has aimed at 2011 World Cup qualification. There is however lurking danger that the dream may end well before it has started if the men running the game in the country deceive themselves by believing that the status quo and current crop of players will take us past this important stage.
To succeed, the Sables will require men --not boys -- and real grit, skill and experience rather than the mere promise they fielded last year.
Without disrespecting the guys who earned their stripes last year, the ZRU must call upon former national players -- retired or active -- to help them advance past this crucial stage of the qualifiers.
The Sables are placed with Tunisia, Uganda and Cameroon in their group of the CAR Cup.
Casually looking at it, a top-two finish looks an easy picking for Zimbabwe. But in African rugby, as now is the case in African football, the small teams have disappeared from the scene to be replaced by decently balanced outfits which have gone on to show big improvement and strongly challenging the "established" sides.
Take for instance that Uganda's Cranes won the CAR Cup last year, a no less than deserved achievement which heralded the arrival of the continent's former punching bags.
The Tunisians, too, are very serious about their rugby. They have a good structure and their national team is very organised and can hold their own against the continent's best sides.
Zimbabwe will be encouraged by their dominance over the North Africans at sevens in recent matches, but their XVs will prove to be different kettle of fish.
The name Cameroon is synonymous with African football.They play rugby for fun. Their national side is but a club of super-fit, gym-patronising playmates wanting a good time and suitable activity to discharge their bodily brute.
They obviously lack skill and a correct system. This is where they are dangerous. They will hassle, intimidate and sledge. They have nothing to lose, but they won't come to lose. For an opposition to successfully counter them, they must contain a high degree of discipline, technique and skill.
That said, the conclusion remains that Zimbabwe need to retain their experienced players to stand a greater chance of winning.
If, to name but a few, men such as Rocky Gurumani, Clint Joseph, Max Madziva or John Ewing are still far better than any of the current national team players even after calling time on their international careers, then the rational thing to do is to turn back to the old-guard until such as time when their talents and contribution can be matched or bettered by the incoming players.
There is a list of questions that the ZRU, if it is going to be honest with itself and those who follow rugby in Zimbabwe, must ask itself regarding player issues.
In there, I believe, lies answers that could be the panacea to the national team's woes.
Why has Wes Mbanje, the prolific winger regarded as one of the best sevens players in South Africa, not played for the Sables in three years?
Why did Max Madziva, overflowing with passion for Zimbabwe rugby when he came back from England, decide he didn't need the national side and gave up?
Why are there always excuses over Daniel Hondo's availability for the Sables?
Why is Shaun De Souza, still highly enthusiastic when discussing Zimbabwe rugby, find it worthwhile now doing lip-service than serving on the field where he can be more fluent?
What happened to Shingi Chirimuuta after he was injured against Senegal two years ago? Why did he turn his back on Zimbabwe?
Where is Michael Rhodes, the hooker who turned on a couple of blinders for the Sables two years ago before disappearing from the scene?
Can't Liam Middleton, the brilliant national sevens coach, help out with the Sables in some role, say, as backline coach?
Does the union treat all the national team players the same or a few get special treatment?
What is ZRU doing to keep in the system young players like Cleopas Makotose, Tangai Nemadire, Paul Staak, Fortune Chipendo, Alfred Sairayi, Jacques Leitao among others, who have, in the absence of the Dream Sables team below, loyally answered national call ups?
Sables Dream XV
1. Alfred Sairayi 2. Mike Rhodes 3. Clint Joseph 4. Costa Dinha 5. Arthur Mathe 6. Max Madziva (captain) 7. Jacques Leitao 8. Rocky Gurumani 9. Tich Chidongo 10. Piet Benade 11. Shaun De Souza 12. John Ewing 13. Daniel Hondo 14. Wes Mbanje 15. Victor Olonga.
Reserves: Cleopas Makotose, Paul Staak, Victor Zimbawo, Roland Benade, Tangai Nemadire, Donald Mangenje, Ryan Dube, Gary Hewitt, Prayer Chitenderu, Shingi Chirimuuta, Fortune Chipendo, Gardner Nechironga, Jeff Tigere, Norman Mukondiwa, Dustin Wilcox.
Head coach: Brendan Dawson
Assistant coach: John Falkenberg
Backline coach: Liam Middleton
Forwards coach: Brighton Chivandire
Technical adviser: Godwin Murambiwa