Zimbabwe’s Sables on right track to end long Rugby World Cup wait 

Zimbabwe are making a serious play to be involved in their first Rugby World Cup of the professional era, having made their two previous appearances in 1987 and 1991. We catch up with the Sables camp to find out why the mood is so optimistic.

Zimbabwe’s Brendan Dawson is supremely confident he can join a select band of individuals who have played and coached at a Rugby World Cup.

Totemic figures of the sport like John Kirwan and Martin Johnson, to name just two, have achieved the feat and Dawson has already come close to emulating them once before in 2015.

Dawson, a leading member of the Sables squad that made the last of their two tournament appearances in 1991, was coach of the team when they missed out on the Africa 1 slot to Namibia at England 2015 by a single point.

Now, with Dawson back in charge of the Sables for a second time, the Zimbabwe Rugby Union are leaving nothing to chance, in their quest to ensure the national team will be a part of Rugby World Cup 2023.

A first-class coaching team to support the former back-rower has been put in place and the Union have reached out to the Zimbabwean diaspora for help through the formation of the Sables Rugby Network.

Dawson is being assisted by Liam Middleton (backs/defence), Danny Hondo (strength and conditioning), Graham Knoop (lineout), Alice Randall (physio) and Jason Maritz (team manager).

Overseas aid

Zimbabwe-born David Pocock, the sole Wallaby in World Rugby’s Team of the Decade, has been in contact to offer support with breakdown coaching, while input from fellow countryman, England international Don Armand and Adrian Garvey, a team-mate of Dawson’s in 1991, has helped to “bring confidence and increase the credibility of the programme,” according to Maritz.

Meanwhile, Jason Robertson, a prolific point scorer in Major League Rugby with Old Glory, and Tapiwa Mafura of the Free State Cheetahs in South Africa are among a clutch of overseas players to pledge their allegiance.

“A lot of guys are wanting to put their hands up and make themselves available, so I believe we are in a position of strength for one of the first times,” said Dawson.

“Having the opportunity to play in a World Cup is massive; it’s the dream, it’s the ultimate of any international rugby player to represent your country at a World Cup.”

Crowning glory

Zimbabwe’s head-turning Victoria Cup win in 2019, when Kenya and Uganda were both beaten en route to lifting the trophy, helped to show the world that Zimbabwean rugby was on its way back and in with a realistic shot of qualifying for its first Rugby World Cup tournament of the professional era.

“Winning the Victoria Cup was a great boost for us; it kind of got us noticed again,” said Maritz.

“We have got our house in order. In a country that is not so stable we have got an environment that is stable, so we have built a lot of trust with players. They trust us to support them and their families in making sure they get paid for their efforts, and that we have each other’s backs.

“The culture we created when we got together in 2019 has played a big role. Players around the world are putting their hands up and saying, ‘we want to be a part of this, we see something special’.

“There is still that pull towards home. One thing you’ll find with Zimbabweans around the world is they still refer to themselves as Zimbabweans even if they have played for South Africa or England.”

Tests against Zambia and a couple of friendlies against Namibia have been pencilled in for May and June, to give the Sables some much-needed game time after a blank year in 2020.

Bringing their A-game

In order for the Sables to qualify for RWC 2023, they must win next year’s Rugby Africa Cup. A plum draw in Pool A with three-time world champions New Zealand, hosts France, Italy and Americas 1 waits for them if they are successful.

“What greater achievement could I achieve as a coach? I have great coaches behind me, and I think we can go very far and go to the World Cup in 2023, and not only go there to make up the numbers but to compete. I want us to shock people,” said Dawson, who played against Ireland, Scotland and Japan at RWC 1991.

Maritz, a former prop from Bulawayo, was only five when Dawson wept tears of joy as the national anthems were sung at that tournament, and is confident the current squad can experience the euphoria of playing on the sport’s biggest stage.

“We are well aware of the journey ahead and what needs to be done and I want to believe, and I do believe, we will qualify,” he said. “I know in the coaches and players’ hearts we all feel this is our best opportunity yet to get there.”

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