When Victor Pekani mentions the word “rugby”, an effortless grin covers his face projecting a serious adoration for the contact sport.
BY KENNEDY NYAVAYA
This is a man who has been involved with the sporting discipline for most of his life.
But, Pekani’s career on the pitch almost two decades ago is not as illustrious as his past 10 years on the side-lines, in a coaching stint that has mentored hundreds of millennials from how to merely handle the egg-shaped ball into rugby stars of note.
The colourful achievements are solely dependent on experience and instincts, not some validation of formal certification yet he is now trusted enough to even tutor other studying coaches.
A glimpse at the background gives an impression that he is a pompous giant but far from it. Although heavily built physically, the towering unassuming Pekani is as meek as a lamb.
A solid 10 years have passed since he, along with colleagues, officially registered the Mbare Rugby Academy with the Zimbabwe Rugby Union (ZRU) though he ponders over the prospects of this sporting institution seemingly at a standstill.
“There is lots of rugby talent at the academy as we speak but the issue of resources shortage is pulling us back,” he said.
With no proper training equipment, the idea of celebrating their 10th year anniversary is fast-fading in their minds as they prioritise the academy’s main goal of staying in existence as the economic crunch prevailing in the country has not spared their efforts.
“If resources were permitting and we had all we need, then we definitely would want to celebrate our successes in churning out some great talent over the past few years,” said Pekani, whose main focus at this time of the year is sourcing scholarships for his underprivileged players.
“Most of our players’ parents do not have money for tuition fees so when you train a child but they are not going to school then you are not taking them anywhere and that is one of the challenges we are facing.
“Some of the children come from Mbare where there are no fields and for them to come this side [Harare Sports Club fields], they need transport but most of them fail to come because they would have failed to get a $1 to leave their home.”
This is not what he envisioned when he decided to take children off the streets of the traditionally football-mad high density surburb to turn them into rugby stars in the early 2000s.
One of the Mbare Academy’s early prodigies was none other than Pekani’s namesake Victor Zimbawo, who went on to win 15 Test caps for the Zimbabwe national team as a hugely talented flyhalf.
Pekani would later unearth another gem, in Germany-based former Zimbabwe international Manasah Sita, who in 2008 was named the best rugby player in the country following a sublime season with Old Georgians.
Since then, the academy has become a breeding ground for some of the country’s finest players.
Zimbabwe internationals Njabulo Ndlovu and Stephan “Stavo” Hunduza were part of the national Sevens side that qualified for the Rugby World Cup Sevens to be staged in the United States next year.
South Africa-based Ryan Phiri is currently part of the U-21 setup at the Currie Cup outfit Pumas while former youth international and Old Georgians utility back Shingi Katsvere is one of the country’s brightest prospects.
There is simply no ending to the Mbare Rugby Academy’s conveyer belt of talent.
Meanwhile, Itai Vambe initially made his name in rugby before shifting to athletics, where he is making a name for himself as one of the country’s emerging sprinters, while some have earned themselves scholarships at some of the leading schools locally and in South Africa.
“Our aim was not that when a boy finishes school they are stuck in local clubs playing for free because it will not help them in any way; even their parents would wonder why so much time was invested in the sport,” said Pekani.
However, determined as ever, the respected coach believes there is more he can do for both his academy and the nation.
“The aim we are looking at is for us to take the league and be a club with a great number of players in the national team and for me to coach the national team, not for me to submit a CV for the job but to be handpicked as a result of the good job I will be doing,” he said.
If indeed his wishes materialise, he pictures the club playing in the prestigious Gold Cup before proceeding to “leave Africa to play with teams from New Zealand and take local talent far.
“So far, I am not searching for glorification from people because I do what I do out of passion so when I start doing it even Zimbabweans know I will be doing my job but my aim is for Mbare Academy to become a club.”
Under his mentorship are over 150 players both male and female ranging between six to 19 years of age, but this number is set to rise when he expands the academy’s wings to orphanages and marginalised peri-urban areas around the capital.
The battle to get resources is ultimately ephemeral but the real struggle of eradicating poverty, crime and all forms of societal ills pervading Harare’s oldest suburb continues and Pekani insists he is not giving up anytime soon.