Zimbabwe: Sables Rebuild Again

It is incredible the twists and turns that a year in international sport can make.

Thirteen months ago with Morocco in town, deputy Brendan Dawson sat side-by-side on the bench with head coach Peter de Villiers, both men beaming widely, in happier times, comrades-in-arms on the first assignment of a mission to take Zimbabwe to its first Rugby World Cup in three decades.

Their smiles were in sync with the colourful and joyous home crowd, one of the biggest to gather for an international rugby tie in Zimbabwe.

However, with the World Cup dream fast slipping away mid-way through the campaign, one thing then led to another, including a big fallout between ex-Zimbabwe captain Dawson and the former Springbok coach de Villiers.

De Villiers has since been sacked, and Dawson is back at the helm as Zimbabwe's coach for a second tenure, leading the Sables back to the drawing board again starting with the side's first Test match of the year in the Victoria Cup opener against neighbours Zambia at Harare Sports Club tomorrow.

While Dawson was the right-hand man on the dug-out in the opening World Cup qualifier last year, tomorrow, quite ironically, the number two on the Zimbabwe bench will be former Springbok wing Tonderai Chavhanga, another man de Villiers will not be exchanging Christmas cards with following a spat.

Last year, Chavhanga publicly criticised de Villiers for failing to guide Zimbabwe to the World Cup, with the South African retorting sharply with a taunt that the ex-Bok speedster "ran away from the problems of his own country" during his playing days.

Tomorrow will also represent a new dawn on the field for the Zimbabwe players. Brandon Mandivenga, in particular, will be celebrating quite a unique feat.

Last year against the Moroccans, the hugely talented utility back was making his international debut in Zimbabwe's first Test match of the year.

Only a year later and on the same turf, again in the Sables' first Test of the season, Mandivenga will be leading the team out as the country's new captain at the age of 24.

The former Peterhouse College wizard, who has now settled at fly-half, received his apprenticeship for captaincy under the tutelage of Dawson during Zimbabwe Academy's maiden season in the 2019 SuperSport Rugby Challenge.

Having raised his hand for the full-time captaincy of Zimbabwe in South Africa's tier two domestic competition, hype had grown around Mandivenga, who is touted to be the Sables' long-term 10 and skipper in view of the 2023 World Cup.

Growing up, it was an advantage that sport flowed through the veins of the family of Mandivenga, himself also a handy cricketer as well as track-and-field star at Peterhouse.

His dad, top business executive Darlington Mandivenga, was a gifted footballer and athlete at Ellis Robins Boys High in the 1980s, while his mother was a brilliant basketball player at St John's Emerald Hill.

Another early family influence was uncle Ranga Mandivenga, one-time headboy and all-round sportsman at Ellis Robins in the mid-90s when the new Sables skipper was a little boy.

Six players in the starting line-up tomorrow make their maiden international appearance, four of them already accustomed to be camaraderie of the group by having been part of the SuperSport Challenge experience.

The two starting XV players who are new to the set-up are loose-head prop Henri Boshoff and left winger Martin Mangongo, son of former Zimbabwe cricket coach Stephen Mangongo.

Both are based in Europe, with Boshoff plying his trade in Romania and Mangongo in France.

The other run-on Test debutants are tight-head Tyran Fagan, lock Godwin Mangenje, blind-side flank Blithe Mavesere and towering eighthman Godfrey Muzanargwo.

The new-look Victoria Cup takes on a deeper significance this year. Although only a four-nation Test championship between Zimbabwe, Zambia, Kenya and Uganda -- it becomes Africa's premier competition this year in the absence of the Africa Cup, which is off the calendar due to the World Cup taking place later in the year.

The Victoria Cup has a bearing on world rankings as well as the qualification route for the 2013 World Cup.

Zimbabwe starting XV

15. Kuda Chiwanza 14. Takudzwa Kumadiro 13. Daniel Capsopoulos 12. Ngoni Chibuwe 11. Martin Mangongo* 10. Brandon Mandivenga (captain) 9. Hilton Mudariki (v/captain) 8. Godfrey Muzanargwo* 7. Brian Nyaude 6. Blithe Mavesere* 5. Godwin Mangenje 4. Kudakwashe Nyakufaringwa 3. Tyran Fagan 2. Keith Murray 1. Henri Boshoff.

Subs: 16. Matthew Mandioma 17. Tatenda Rwenyu* 18. Royal Mwale 19. Moses Gunda* 20. George Saungweme 21. Ernest Mudzengerere 22. Jerry Jaravaza 23. Takudzwa Chieza*

*Indicate international debut.

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