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The untold story of a prestigious African rugby derby

Somewhere in Africa there is a sporting rivalry that is unknown to many– and it’s not in football, the continent’s number-one sport.

Zimbabwe is a powerhouse in African rugby – the sport has been played in the country since the Cecil Rhodes-led Pioneer Column arrived here more than a century ago. At the 1987 and 1991 World Cups, Zimbabwe was Africa’s sole representative (South Africa was still under sporting isolation due to apartheid). Since then, the Zimbabweans have not played in the World Cup, after the game’s global showcase introduced a qualification process. But due to the legacy of European settlement in the Southern African country, and the majority black population taking up the sport in numbers, Zimbabwe has remained a much respected rugby-playing nation in Africa at all levels of the game.

Across the continent, in East Africa, Kenya also has a proud rugby tradition. The sport has a long history in Kenya. Kenya’s first game was played in 1909, when a team composed of predominantly British ‘officials’ took on mainly Afrikaner ‘settlers’ in Mombasa.

“Kenya’s Sevens team made history by winning their first title in the World Rugby Sevens Series”

In the Sevens format of the game, the Kenyans boast a world-class team that, with South Africa, plays in the prestigious World Rugby Sevens Series as Africa’s only two core sides.

Early this year, Kenya’s Sevens team made history by winning their first title in the World Rugby Sevens Series, claiming the Singapore leg of the competition. The World Sevens Series is made up of nine different legs, played in nine different cities across the world.

 Zimbabwe Sevens Rugby Team Photo: Jesús Gorriti/Flickr

Zimbabwe Sevens Rugby Team Photo credit: Jesús Gorriti/Flickr

At Fifteens level, which is the main format of the game, Zimbabwe is considered the better of the two countries, technically and tactically. Indeed, in head-to-head fixtures between the two teams since the 1970s, Zimbabwe has dominated. Until their last meeting last weekend, Zimbabwe and Kenya had met 22 times. Zimbabwe had 17 wins under their belt, while Kenya had won five of their showdowns.

Meeting a rugby legend

Godfrey ‘Chief’ Edebe is a Kenyan national who has lived in Zimbabwe for more than 20 years now. He is a legendary figure in Kenyan rugby, having played for the national side in the 1970 and 1980s, and is one of the finest rugby talents to come out of the East African nation. Edebe fell in love with Zimbabwe during a rugby tour and married a local woman, who, sadly, has since passed away.

Known simply as Chief Edebe by his peers, he recalls test matches against Zimbabwe with nostalgia, describing them as some of the highlights of his career.

I have become good friends with Edebe over the years, despite our vast difference in age. We share a love for the beautiful sport that brought us together at the Old Hararians Sports Club in the Zimbabwean capital, which is located in the vicinity of the suburb where we both lived.

“These days, there is hardly any money in Zimbabwean rugby, and the biggest incentive for the players is the pride of wearing the green-and-white strip”.

“The early battles were much tighter than what you see these days,” Edebe told me one Saturday afternoon as we watched a local league match between Old Hararians and their rivals, Harare Sports Club. “Of course, in the past, Rhodesia (as Zimbabwe was known before 1980) would overpower us. But Kenya was one of the teams that gave you (Zimbabwe) a good run for your money.”

The Victoria Derby

Winning the Victoria Derby is a matter of great pride for the two nations. Bragging rights are at stake. The Victoria Derby derives its name from the fact that the two countries have in common tourist attractions of that name. Zimbabwe is home to the breathtaking Victoria Falls, one of the great natural wonders of the world, while Lake Victoria in Kenya is also an international tourist destination of choice.

There is something about this battle between the two nations that always repeats itself. While Zimbabwe has won most of the games, Kenya tended to catch Zimbabwe when it was at its weakest. Kenya wins most of the derbies when Zimbabwe’s political and economic situation is dire, as has often been the case in the last 20 years.

These days, there is hardly any money in Zimbabwean rugby, and the biggest incentive for the players is the pride of wearing the green-and-white strip. The lack of money, especially at a time of crisis like the one currently gripping the country, means the national side cannot prepare sufficiently for games. There isn’t enough funds to fly in some of the better professional players based abroad and camp conditions are not ideal. The little in allowance and bonus due to the players is often not available.

Such was the case last week, when Kenya landed in Harare for the 22nd clash between these two proud rugby African nations. The stage was the Africa Cup Group 1, the continent’s premier rugby competition. Zimbabwe, nicknamed the Sables, had won the last five meetings between the two nations. Kenya’s last win was back in 2008, when Zimbabwe was going through a horrific phase in its history.

The venue could not have been more sentimental: It was the 20 000-seater Police Grounds in Harare, where international heavyweights like the All Blacks and Wales have been hosted in the past. The Sables have not played there in 21 years. On Saturday, Police Grounds, now chiefly a football venue, looked in prime condition.

The atmosphere, too, was befitting this great contest – a number of Kenyan nationals in Zimbabwe turned up to support their boys. The turf was smooth and green, and a 10 000-strong partisan home crowd had braved the low temperatures to witness yet another captivating contest in this untold African sporting story, a game that deserves a place among the top rivalries of sport on the continent.

As on other previous occasions, the Zimbabwean players, greatly affected by the depressing conditions at home, looked heavily under-prepared and were no match for a much-improved Kenyan side, which has benefitted immensely from significant monetary investment in the sport.

The 61-15 thumping of Zimbabwe was a massive result for Kenyan rugby, and a new low for Zimbabwe. However, it was yet another wonderful advertisement of this fiercely contested African rugby derby. Long may it live!

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