HomeSportRugby tactician Middleton comes of age

Rugby tactician Middleton comes of age

ZIMBABWE is a great exporter of coaching talent in world rugby.

BY DANIEL NHAKANISO

Liam Middleton during his recent stint as Canada Sevens rugby team coach
Liam Middleton during his recent stint as Canada Sevens rugby team coach

For a small country with a modest rugby-playing population, being the home of such world-class technical brains is something this nation is immensely proud of.

For several decades, rugby coaches who trace their roots to this country have made positive impact on the game across the planet.

Of them all, perhaps none to date, surpasses the widely-respected Ian McIntosh — a man credited by rugby historians for revolutionising Zimbabwean rugby, giving it the style and identity we enjoy to this day.

Bulawayo native McIntosh — the former Rhodesia and Springbok coach who led the famous Natal side of the 1980s and early 90s (winning the Currie Cup in 1990, the province’s centenary year) — is beyond doubt one of the most celebrated world rugby personalities of his era.

That McIntosh is a recipient of the Vernon Pugh award, one of the highest accolades in rugby, is a thoroughly worth recognition for a true great of the game.

McIntosh raised the bar. But it seems, to a lot of his countrymen, it’s one that’s not too far out of reach.
There are quite a few who have done pretty well for themselves, particularly those working in South Africa, where the great McIntosh plied his trade and achieved his world-class status.

And it’s refreshing, too, to note the racial diversity of the talent nurtured here, and given the global platform to rise.

David Maidza, a former Zimbabwe international, is one of the most highly rated younger coaches in South Africa.
The ex-Old Georgians (OGs) centre has coached Eastern Province in the Vodacom Cup and Currie Cup First Division, and for three years now has been in charge of the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University side in the Varsity Cup.

Maidza’s old OGs teammate, the iconic Currie Cup point record holder Kennedy Tsimba, had been enlisted as one of the Springbok specialist coaches by one of the candidates vying for the Bok coaching post, eventually given to Allister Coetzee.

Tsimba, though, had several other offers on the table and is currently earning his stripes as the director of rugby at one of South Africa’s most prestigious private schools, St Alban’s.

It’s the same route travelled by the likes of former Springbok coaches Nick Mallet and Jake White, and Tsimba also sees this as his stepping stone to the highest level of coaching.

One other Zimbabwean who has been up and about, climbing up the ladder in world rugby, is the ambitious and confident 39-year-old Liam Middleton.

From Zimbabwe to Canada and a long spell in England in between – the former Zimbabwe 7s tactician has certainly come a long way.

Since taking up his first coaching job with Howick High School in South Africa as a fresh 23-year-old, Middleton has gone on to take up five posts with Hartpury College Rugby Academy, the Bristol Rugby Club (BRFC) Rugby Academy, Bristol Rugby Club, the Zimbabwe Sevens team and most recently with Canada.

Three months ago, Middleton completed a two-year stint with the Canada Sevens side, one of the most sought after coaching jobs on the highly lucrative HSBC Sevens World Series.

During that spell he led the ambitious Central American side to a historic gold medal at the Pan American Games, beating USA and Argentina along the way, while two victories over the All Blacks Sevens on the circuit during his stint also immediately stand out on his list of achievements in Canada.

While a return to the HSBC Sevens World Series with another top team may seem like the obvious route, Middleton, who recently returned home after turning down offers from Samoa and Kenya, says he has set his sight on a new challenge.

And despite recent local media reports linking with a return to the domestic game, Middleton, who served as Zimbabwe Sevens coach between 2004 and 2010 and later as Zimbabwe Rugby Union (ZRU) director of rugby in 2014, immediately ruled himself out of contention.

In fact, after a 12-year stint on the World Sevens Series circuit, first with Zimbabwe and more recently with Canada, the highly-regarded former Bristol RFC coach is eyeing a return to the fifteens version of the game, should a perfect opportunity arise.

“I believe I’ve improved as a coach. Sevens has been a big part of my life for about 12 years, although fifteens has been by grounding. I had an unbelievable experience during my two years in Canada, travelling on the world circuit is an unbelievable experience but my priority at the moment is my wife and my sons,” Middleton told Standardsport in an exclusive interview.

“It [Sevens Rugby] has been for the last 12 years of my career but I’m not sure it’s a good fit for where my kids are; they want their dad around. I’ve been approached by Samoa while Kenya has also made some enquiries but it doesn’t fit for where I am as a person and the direction I’m heading. If it’s in rugby, it’s going to be in fifteens,” he reveals.

Born in Harare, Middleton was schooled at Hellenic Junior School in the city before proceeding to Pietermaritzburg High School in South Africa for his first two years of high school before returning home to attend Watershed College in Marondera.

His ambition was to play fifteens rugby at the top level until a shattering knee injury cut short his career in 1999 while playing for the Gloucester Under-21 side in England he had joined after leaving Natal University in South Africa in 1998.

Perhaps as fate would have it, the injury created a pathway for a successful coaching career — first with the Kwazulu Natal-based Howick High School in South Africa.

“I had studied agriculture here in Zimbabwe and went to South Africa to do a business management course and in my spare time started coaching at a school in Pietermaritzburg. I coached the Under-15s there and within a short space of time I saw how much of an improvement I had made with that group of players. It got my interest in coaching even though I’d studied agriculture and business,” Middleton said.

And as they say, the rest is history. Middleton never looked back, moving to England to join Hartpury College in Gloucester — an institution which would later play a leading role in the development of a number of Zimbabwean players such as Danny Hondo, Charles Jiji, Marco Mama and Andy Rose, among others.

Having initially joined as sports director, Middleton was instrumental in the setting up of the Hartpury College Academy.

Under his watch, the college won the British Universities Championship title three years in a row and claimed a historic first-ever British Universities national 7s title.

“It was at that time that I felt I had grown with Hartpury College from its seed to its blossoming and it was time for me to move on.”

Still just 28 at the time and while at Hartpury, Middleton took charge of the British Universities fifteens side for a tour of New Zealand in 2004, winning all four matches on the tour in addition to several other international tournaments. Middleton was head coach of the Great Britain Students 7s team during the World University Games in 2006 in Rome where they were silver medalists.

It was during his time at the Hartpury College Rugby Academy that Middleton became involved in Zimbabwe 7s after linking up with the former long-serving Cheetahs team manager Bruce Hobson, a relationship that would last over a decade.

“I remember the phone call Bruce made to me and I was in my apartment at the Hartpury College campus, he told me how they wanted me to coach the Zimbabwe Sevens side but they had no money and I remember it so clearly to this day. I told him it would be my honour to be involved with Zimbabwe rugby and I would do it for free,” he recalled.

That would be the beginning of Zimbabwe’s most successful period on the HSBC Sevens World Series circuit to date.
Despite Zimbabwe not being a core member of the nine-tournament series, Middleton transformed the Cheetahs into a formidable side, winning several Shield and Bowl finals.

The side, arguably the best sevens team the country has produced in history, featured such exciting players as current coach Danny Hondo, then Wes Mbanje, Silethokuhle “Slater” Ndlovu, John Ewing, Willis Magasa, Allan Mdehwa, Cleopas Makotose, Grant Mitchell, Gilbert Nyamutsamba, Gardner Nechironga, Zacks Tondoro, Tich Chidongo, Tonderai Mapunde, Alex Ndangana, Donald Mangenje, Basil Dingiswayo, Victor Zimbawo, Happy Nyatanga, Tangai Nemadire, Emmanuel Munyoro, Fortune Chipendu, Jacques Leitao and Neill Nortje, among others.

Middleton, who was at the helm of the Zimbabwe Sevens team from 2004 to 2010, regards the team’s campaign at the 2009 Rugby World Cup Sevens in Dubai – where they won an impressive four out of their six games, culminating in a Bowl Final victory against Ireland — as the highlight of his career with the Cheetahs.

A successful club coaching career in England soon followed for the Zimbabwe-born trainer as he went on to guide Bristol RFC to the RFU Championship play-offs and winning the British and Irish Cup before his departure in March 2013.

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