STILL reeling from a dismal Africa Cup campaign where they failed to win a single match, the Zimbabwe senior rugby team will undergo another test of their mettle when they face pre-tournament favourites Russia in the opening match of the Cup of Nations in Hong Kong tomorrow. BY DANIEL NHAKANISO
The opening match against the Russian Bears will kickstart a tough week for the Sables in the four-nation competition, where they are also scheduled to play against hosts Hong Kong and debutants, Papua New Guinea on November 15 and 19, respectively.
The Sables are currently on a seven-match losing streak dating back to their 16-10 win over Tunisia in July last year and their most recent Test action was this winter, when they lost all three matches against Namibia, Kenya and Uganda in the Africa Cup.
Zimbabwe will also be hunting for their first win in Hong Kong after losing all three Cup of Nations matches last year against hosts Hong Kong (30-11), Russia (50-5) and Portugal (36-11) to finish bottom of the group in the round-robin competition.
And tomorrow, the Sables will be hoping for a change of fortunes as they seek to avoid succumbing to a third successive loss to the Russians, who in 2004 beat them 23-15 in a 2015 Rugby World Cup répechage semi-final in Siberia.
Cyprian Mandenge’s charges, however, face an uphill task. Russia, who are early favourites to defend their title in Hong Kong, had a muscular build-up, having played their most recent Tests in June — against tier one unions Canada and the US albeit in a losing cause.
Prior to that, Russia dispatched Spain, Germany and Portugal in the 2016 European Nations Cup, losing only to Romania (30-0).
In contrast, the Sables have only played three Africa Cup matches this year and head to Russia without having played any fine-tuning matches.
However, despite the obvious lack of competitive game time in the build-up to the four-nation tournament, Zimbabwe Rugby Union selectors have called up an experienced side while also fusing in a number of talented former youth internationals.
Skipper Denford Mutamangira is expected to lead his charges from the front as he marshals a fairly formidable forward department, which has in the past carried the day for the Sables.
The Sables technical department also look to have an eye on the future with a number of uncapped youthful players in the squad.
Former Zimbabwe Under-20 captain, Connor Pritchard was recalled after making his debut against Namibia early this year while flyhalf Joshua Gando and centres Brad Ellse and Kudzai Mashawi are also set to earn their first caps in Hong Kong.
Sables Squad for Hong Kong
Forwards: Denford Mutamangira (captain), Brian Makamure, Lawrence Cleminson, Irvine Nduwa, Michael Passaportis, Witness Mandizha, Tapfuma Parirenyatwa, Lucky Sithole, Osborne Muhambi, Njabulo Ndlovu, Connor Pritchard, Andrew Rose, Biselele Tshamala, Simba Mandiona, Tolerance Zishe
Backs: Joshua Gando, Tichafara Makwanya, Lenience Tambwera, Stephan Hunduza, Tafadzwa Chitokwindo, Tadius Dzandiwandira, Riaan O’Neil, Kudzai Mashawi, Gavin Nyawata, Brad Ellse, Lungile Tshuma
Technical Team: Head coach: Cyprian Mandenge, assistant coach: Costa Dinha, team manager: Sam Samu, physiotherapist: Tendai Muchena