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When Mandela joined a ‘lonely brother’ from Zimbabwe


Maestro ... Kennedy Tsimba was peerless during his time at Free State Cheetahs

19/12/2015 00:00:00
by Enock Muchinjo
 
Zim rugby legend ... Kennedy Tsimba
 
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IN the Afrikaner heartland of Free State, you’d visualise the person they nickname “King of Bloemfontein” – the deeply conservative province’s sport-mad capital – to be a locally-born heartthrob, someone like Kepler Wessels or Hansie Cronje, men credited with inspiring a generation of Boer cricketers raised on a strict diet of rugby.

When that person is not a large and rugged Afrikaner, non-South African, but, in fact, a black rugby player from Zimbabwe, short of stature, it makes the story of Kennedy Tsimba truly remarkable.

It demonstrates in full measure lofty endorsement of a man who, at the peak of his powers, not only dominated South African domestic rugby, but is globally recognised as one of the world’s top fly-halves of the early 21th century.

Hall of Famer

In 2012, World Rugby recognised Kennedy Tsimba and his late older brother Richard as two of the game’s greatest players of all time and inducted them into its Hall of Fame – a place reserved only for global luminaries of the game, the greatest honour an individual can ever achieve.

Prior to that, the Tsimba brothers had been the only two black people on the illustrious list, until the late iconic South African President Nelson Mandela was posthumously inducted at the 2015 World Cup in England for fostering better race relations in the country through rugby following the demise of apartheid.

“I was doing TV work for SABC during the World Cup few months ago when the news came through that Nelson Mandela had been inducted,” says Tsimba, back home in Harare for the festive season break.

“I was asked to describe how it felt to be in such company of an icon like Nelson Mandela, and him becoming only the third black person on the list. I said ‘at least a brother has come, we were feeling lonely’. Given two options, I’d choose to be inducted into the Hall of Fame to winning the World Cup. It’s only for the greats. To have Nelson Mandela there, epitomises the height of the achievement.”

Symbol of equality

Athletic prowess aside, Tsimba also rose to become a cultural icon, a people’s champion. By peerlessly excelling at a sport closest to the hearts of the Free State folk, and in a position considered sacred, preserve of the stereotypical local blue-eyed pin-up boy – Tsimba became the ultimate symbol of equality, ample proof that people of every race and background can lay claim to greatness in their chosen field.



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“When I arrived at Free State Cheetahs I was the only black player. The faces I saw when I first got there, and the faces I saw after my first game … that’s when I realised the power of sport to change attitudes and hatred towards another race,” Tsimba says. “A few months down the line, I didn’t have to pay for anything in a restaurant. I had people picking up the bills for me. People would buy me a drink so they could have just five minutes of my time.

“Later on, the Zimbabwean youngsters who came, Beast (Tendai Mtawarira) and Tonderai (Chavhanga), found it much easier to break through because of the impact I’d made. All the unions were saying ‘let’s go to Zimbabwe. Surely there are more Tsimbas there’. Union officials were calling me to say ‘do you know this guy?’.”

The making of a King


Legend ... Accepting his Hall of Fame indictment from World Rugby vice-president Oregan Hoskins

 

The flyhalf maestro, one of the most accurate kickers of his era, confirmed his heroic status at Cheetahs by setting a new record in 2002 for the most points in a Currie Cup season. He also became the fastest player in first-class history to reach 1000 points – a standing South African record likely to live for a very long time.

“That was a wonderful occasion,” smiles Tsimba. “The record I broke was held by Naas Botha, and, as you know, Naas Botha is Mr SA Rugby. For that record to be broken by a black player was quite a feat.”

In addition to the two records, Tsimba was Currie Cup player-of-the-tournament in 2002, and in 2008 he was crowned the best in the competition’s second-tier division playing for Griffons.

“I think the funniest thing is that I only realise now what an achievement it was,” says Tsimba.

“There are many youngsters who were as talented but didn’t get a chance. I simply took a chance. Here in Zimbabwe, I was said to be too small to play rugby. I took a leap of faith. Who just packs a bag full of rugby boots to go to Bloemfontein? I didn’t even know where Bloemfontein was. But within five months they were talking about me playing for the Springboks.

“There was some resistance. A lot of the players didn’t speak to me. Calls were in Afrikaans. To make matters worse, I played in a position no black person has played … the game is won and lost because of the number 10. When I told them I played flyhalf, they frowned. What they didn’t understand was that we had a black culture of rugby in Zimbabwe. We have a culture and style of play. It’s only unique to Zimbabwe. Just like the Fijians have their own unique style. Ours start from school; full of skill, confidence, very much skill-based and pace.”

Biggest influence

His father was a successful businessman, so young Kennedy was able to attend top-rugby playing schools, first at Ruzawi in Marondera then Eaglesvale and Prince Edward in Harare for senior school. The biggest influence on him though was his brother Richard – Zimbabwe’s first black rugby international and a veteran of two World Cups known globally for his dazzling try against Romania at the inaugural World Cup in Australia in 1987.

Richard Tsimba, nicknamed the “Black Diamond”, had initially exhibited his ability and talents at Peterhouse College and then in the 80s at Chimurenga, Zimbabwe’s first black rugby club.

“Chimurenga” is a Shona word meaning “revolutionary struggle” and it is officially used to refer to Zimbabwe’s war for Independence. The black rugby community adopted it to signify their fight for recognition and racial integration at a time the sport at the top was almost exclusively white.

“I didn’t want to play because I was into music and drama, I ended up playing because of my brother, who had picked up the sport at Peterhouse. He had God-given ability. Then, later, I’d go watch Chimurenga, and that’s what inspired me,” Tsimba says.

“Later on, I was given a platform in Currie Cup and I showcased those skills. Everything started here in Zim. On ZBC every Monday night they showed a programme on Five Nations Rugby. It was sponsored by Gillette. I took particular interest in the styles of different number 10s. The French have a certain style, and the Welsh are good fly-halves. I mixed that with the Chimurenga style. Then in SA I started doing those things. It was a refreshing style; kicking, running, passing, back-heeling, things unconventional in rugby.”

Springboks blow


TV … Kennedy Tsimba with his SABC presentation colleagues during the World Cup

 

Following his exploits at Cheetahs, with the world at his feet, Tsimba would come very close to realise one of his ambitions – playing for the Springboks. That was never to be the case, due to change in eligibility laws and complications arising from the four caps he had previously earned for Zimbabwe – one of them as the first ever black player to captain his country.

“What is funny is that a lot of white South Africans thought there was big racism against me. I was breaking one record after another, but I couldn’t play for the Springboks. It became an outcry,” says Tsimba.

“At that stage what does one do? When I was Currie Cup player-of-the-tournament in 2002, there was the World Cup the following year. Surely, I must be going to the World Cup with the Springboks!

“Why it was such a big blow was that, it then affected my whole rugby career. Even at 41, I probably would have been still playing. I should have gone to this (2015) World Cup. I played with Victor Matfield and Jean De Villiers – who were at this World Cup in England. 80 percent of the players who were in England are guys I played with over the years. When I realised I couldn’t play (for South Africa) it then became a financial decision. You make proper money playing for the Springboks, or else you move overseas to make money. I stayed in South Africa and moved to the Blue Bulls because they made an offer I couldn’t refuse, although my rugby home was Cheetahs.”

Tsimba currently works for Impats in Rustenburg, where he is in charge of the of the rugby club, winners of the 2014 Community Cup, formerly known as the South African National Club Championships.

His affable and ever-smiling personality has also made him a hit with SABC viewers. He has a three-year contract with the station, producing and presenting his own magazine programme. He was the main anchor during the 2015 World Cup.


Passing on the skills … Kennedy Tsimba during a coaching clinic

More job opportunities are knocking on his door. One of the leading candidates to replace Heyneke Meyer as Springbok coach is keen to engage him as one of his assistant coaches, but then he prefers to work his way up and enhance his skills at a lower level.

“One of the guys who have applied for the (Springboks) job wants me as one his support staff,” reveals Tsimba.

“But obviously, I’ve sort of decided I want to earn my stripes from the bottom end. In the midst of all this, one of the most prestigious private schools in South Africa, St Alban’s College, has offered me a post as director of rugby. The position is a big one. I see that as a stepping stone. If you look at the top coaches in SA, Jake White, Nick Mallett, this is where they all started.”

Before moving to South Africa, Tsimba had spent a season in 1997-98 at English Premiership side Bath as an apprentice, understudying England’s 75-time capped utility back Mike Catt.

“I think it was the best season in terms of my development,” Tsimba says.

“I went there as a rookie, but the weather was too much for me; I was frozen all the time. I came back home to Zim. But it was time well spent for me. I didn’t play, I was on the bench. They had some of the best coaches in the world. Sir Clive Woodward, who went on to win the World Cup with England in 2003, was the backline coach. Andy Robinson, who also coached England, was the head coach. I was in the squad that won the European Cup that season. Basically the whole England team was at Bath.”

Family tragedy

Tsimba hails from a family steeped in rugby, despite their father having been a “soccer man” who sponsored clubs in the Rusape area years before Independence.

His sister Aisha played for the Cheetahs women side while reading Law at the University of Free State. She rose to become vice-president of the Zimbabwe Rugby Union, and currently is a Sports and Recreation (SRC) board member. In the 80s, his other sister was secretary for Chimurenga Rugby Club when older brother Richard played there.

But tragedy would strike 15 years ago when the former Sables star centre Richard tragically died, aged just 34, robbing Kennedy of a figurehead and role model in his life. Richard was killed in a car crash in 2000 on Chiremba Road in Harare on his way from playing golf, a sport he also loved.

“That was a tragedy,” says a suddenly gloomy Tsimba.

“He passed on just after we’d won the Vodacom Cup and I was player of the tournament. He had called me after that. He was extremely proud of me. That was the heaviest blow I’ve received in my life. The person who had inspired me, supported me all the way, emotionally and financially. He got me to SA. It was hard to take.”

Concern for Zim rugby

Tsimba is quite well-settled in South Africa, but is unmistakably still passionate and worried about the future of the game in his home country.

“I’d like to see it get back to being healthy again,” he says. “When I played here it was in a healthy state. But there was still bad management … too much foreign influence. Mark Donato was there, all these guys. Guys who were part of Chimurenga were sidelined. You need rugby people in posts. Youngsters need to see people they know and respect in those jobs. Administrators who are not rugby people can switch to soccer anytime. You need guys with rugby passion. I’m not saying they will make us the best, but if we fail let’s fail with our people.

“We have world-class coaches who can help rugby here. The sad part is they are not involved. We need these people to impact the fundamentals of professional sport, things like preparation. We played against Wales here in 1998 at the National Sports Stadium, which was the last time we hosted a major team. I went to the stadium on the morning of the game to acclimatise and practise my kicking. People said ‘what is he doing?’ I didn’t miss the whole game. You need to put in the time.

“Zim rugby needs to tap into its own people. We mustn’t waste scarce resources looking elsewhere. For a small country, we’ve exported very good rugby people to the bigger countries, meaning we have a lot of these people here. So why should we import brains? Remember David Maidza. This guy coaches at Kings in SA. Tell me, with all these Zimbabwean rugby brains were are we getting it wrong?”

Maidza, a former teammate of Tsimba at club level in Zimbabwe, is one of the most sought-after coaches in South African domestic rugby and is currently in charge of Vodacom Cup side Eastern Province Kings.

“No one has ever tried to approach a guy like David,” laments Tsimba. “He has three offers in South Africa. Same with me. None from our own country. In Fiji, their Super Rugby coaches go back to help the national side whenever they can. They just want to help their country, but people in positions approach them.

“I think the ZRU should pay attention to the talent we retain here. The guy coaching at Churchill, Jeff (Madhake), invest in him because he is the guy who is going to stay in Zimbabwe. Invest in the Churchill boys because they are the ones who stay in Zimbabwe. And they are already playing well and beating Falcon.

“The economy is tough, but there are a lot of youngsters who stay in the country after school. This is what I do at Implats. Give the guys jobs and you don’t have to pay them to play rugby. Talk to corporates and ask for a few jobs. It’s not a train-smasher.”

The conviction of an achiever is unmistakable in his statement.


 
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