On the eve of the Zimbabwe / Kenya Rugby Africa Gold Cup test to be played at Hartsfield Stadium in Bulawayo, one can not help but dredge up a series of puns. Most, if not all of these involve the words “Simbas”, ” Sables ” and “prey”.
It is up to the esteemed reader, of course, to fill in the blanks and come up with his or her own customised headline, but suffice to say, Saturday afternoon’s test is shaping up to be one of the most memorable in a season that has seen some unforgettable clashes.
Kenya, are on the road for the first time this season and their band of merry supporters have every reason to be in a buoyant mood. The Simbas are looking in better shape now than they were this time last month. They overcame doubts cast on their form at home after a loss to Germany and a season opening draw against neighbours Uganda.
Their attacking game is as potent as it has ever been and it may be argued that Jerome Paarwater’s men score tries at will. Talismanic outside back Darwin Mukidza has scored tries at will in their three Africa Gold Cup matches to date. Their captain Wilson Kopondo is also looking lethal whenever he carries the ball in the loose and he has the respect and unwavering belief of the rest of the team.
The Kenyan pack, all too often soft underbelly at the set piece in the not so distant past, has matured and played a huge part in the Simbas’ emergence as a genuine force on the African continent. It was the scrum that starved the bulky Tunisians of ball on that historic afternoon a fortnight ago in Nairobi as the team posted their maiden test century. It is also their scrum that won an invaluable penalty try that brought them back from the brink of disaster to draw Uganda with virtually no time left on the clock.
They are blessed with a bulky pack, able and willing to run at spaces between shoulders and with the ability to pass in both directions on the go. This allows them to link, dare I say, seamlessly with their wily and slippery backline.
This interchangeability between units allows the east Africans to maintain their width in open play. They have the tactical awareness necessary to attack spaces individually and as units, coupled with the emotional intelligence to know when to offload the ball to the next man.
An added string to the Kenyan bow is the manner in which Paarwater has blended youthful energy with hard-won experience. They have a number of young players who have looked comfortable with their transition into test rugby.
That said, the Sables themselves are not muppets. Head Coach Cyprian Mandenge has overseen a U turn in fortunes after a disastrous 2016 saw them end the season at the bottom of the standings. He has also been able to introduce fresh young talent like forwards Connor Pritchard, Brian Nyaude and backs Daniel Capsopoulos and Taku Kamundiro amongst others. He also has the experience of seasoned campaigners Denford Mutamangira, Fortune Chipendu, Jacques Leitão and Tich Makwanya to call on.
The Sables have played just two matches before this as they had a bye on matchday two and both were away. Their first match was in Dakar against Senegal, and last week, they were in Windhoek to face the defending African champions, Namibia. Although they lost that match, the nature of their performance as a team may give their supporters a sense of optimism with regard the future of the 2012 African champions.
They will look to maintain the dominant performance in the set pieces that saw them win a number of scrum penalties against the Namibians. This would help minimise the amount of quality possession the Kenyans would need to put their lethal backline onto the front foot.
In addition, the home team will look to keep the scoreboard ticking. Last week, the Sables scored in majority of their visits into the Namibian 22 with the notable exception being the play that resulted in the match winning try for Namibia.
Makwanya was in fine form when kicking for poles last week at sea level. The seasoned flyhalf has an educated foot and is always on the lookout for a winger or fullback with dodgy positional and spatial awareness. His halfback partner Hilton Mudariki has grown into his role as a senior member of the backline. In the last test, his tactical awareness resulted in a brilliant solo try.
Home fans can also look forward to strong performances from the loose trio. The Kenyan penchant for free flowing football is dependent on their ability to recycle the ball rapidly from the tackle and the Sables have a combination of loose forwards who thrive on the speedy recycle. Pritchard and Leitão were colossal in the breakdown and number eight Njabulo Ndlovu, more than worth his weight on gold as a carrier.
Bulawayo has been the venue of tremendous tests in the past and the Sables will look to build momentum with a performance that secures a result. Fans can be sure of free flowing rugby and action from the first minute through to the last.