HARARE – Liam Middleton, the new Zimbabwe Rugby Union (ZRU) director of rugby, says the Sables can go all the way and qualify for their first World Cup in 21 years if they significantly improve their physical condition and technical awareness in the next six months.
Zimbabwe are coming out of a fairly impressive short tour of Namibia, where they lost to the hosts 35-26 last Friday before beating Kenya 29-14 on Tuesday in a tri-nation series in Windhoek.
Middleton, who is now part of the Sables backroom staff as technical advisor, in addition to his role as the ZRU’s director of rugby, was impressed with the team’s overall showing on tour and believes there is enough quality in the Zimbabwe side to book a place at England 2015.
The well-respected 36-year-old coach, who cut his coaching teeth at different clubs in Britain over the past decade, however believes the bulk of the work needed to secure qualification has to be done between now and next June’s crucial qualification tournament in Madagascar.
A big concern for Middleton, and indeed the rest of the Zimbabwean rugby fraternity, is the team’s continuous failure to beat rivals Namibia, who will be Zimbabwe’s biggest threat once again in their qualification quest.
Middleton says he saw enough in the Windhoek tri-nation series to convince him that with extra hours of work over the next few months, the World Cup dream will turn into reality.
“We made big strides, from the training camp in Bulawayo, then from the Namibia game to the Kenya game,” Middleton told the Daily News yesterday.
“I think we have managed to get a side that can compete, and we have a real chance of qualification next year. There was vast improvement from the training camp in Bulawayo and the week in Namibia. If we continue to improve in the technical and tactical aspect, we got a genuine chance.
“Jah, I am conscious that we haven’t beaten Namibia in like 12 years. We led 17-13 at half time, and that should be enough to go on and win the game. But it boils down to two things; the aspect of physical conditioning. Namibia were better in size and strength. Overall, their 23 players collectively were better conditioned. It’s something we have to work on, and we have been doing that already. Guys have been working hard at the Innovative High Performance Centre in Harare. But we were not gonna get there in three months.”
Harare-born Middleton, a former coach of the Zimbabwe Sevens side, also addressed the Sables’ deficiencies in Namibia, chief amongst them the missed tackles over the two matches, and tendency to lose focus and thus allowing the opposition back in the second half.
“It boils down to the tactical awareness and physical conditioning I spoke about,” said Middleton.
“We have to understand and read the game better, improve our tactical ability and awareness of the kind of things you need to do. We have to learn how to take a lead and keep that lead. I think by next year we will be there.”
While the Sables have spread their selection net wider in recent times by luring a number of the country’s players based overseas, Middleton is now more inclined towards enhancing the core of the squad that is there now, ahead of next year’s qualifiers.
“Look, I think Namibia can also bring another three to four European based players that will strengthen them. But we also have players who didn’t tour Namibia due to exams, such as (Tafadzwa) Chitokwindo and (Njabulo) Ndlovu. They will come and put pressure on certain players in certain positions.
“I was pleased with the guys who toured. We led against Namibia. Well, we didn’t win in the end. We beat Kenya and I thought we should have won by 50 points, there were about four tries that we missed. We have players like Chitokwindo, Ndlovu, (Garth) Ziegler and Simba Bwanya, who will make us even better when they are available.
“I will not bring foreign-based players because they are foreign-based players. They have to be better than the ones we have, otherwise I not interested.”
Middleton, meanwhile, has conceded that talented versatile back Danny Robertson, who has failed to return to the game despite several overtures by officials to lure him back, might not play for Zimbabwe again.
“I don’t know what the issue with Danny is, but I will make it clear is that anyone who wants to join the Sables, the Cheetahs or any of our representative teams must have to be very passionate about representing these teams,” Middleton said.
“If you don’t have that you are going to struggle to make the team because competition is very big now. Danny Robertson plays fullback and centre .But look, Boyd Rouse played very well at centre in Namibia, so did Sean Moan. And there is Danny Hondo too in that position, who we all know is a world-class player. Unless he (Robertson) trains four days a week, he is gonna struggle. For fullback, he also has to go ahead of Tangai (Nemadire), who was man-of-the-match against Kenya, and Lungile (Tshuma), who is also a very good player.”
And while he has high regard for the locally-based group of Sables players, Middleton believes the National Rugby League does not provide stiff competitive between the clubs on a weekly basis to prepare the players sufficiently enough for test rugby.
“For the local based players, the tournament in Namibia was a big step up. That intensity of winning games, from start to finish, our local based players are not used to that. For the local based players, it is close to what they are used to every week,” remarked Middleton.
“We have to put players in scenarios to replicate what those huge games require. They need to play 10 to 15 games that replicate that level of intensity. But it’s also an individual thing. Each individual, wherever they are based, must have a programme for themselves.
“It’s also a financial issue. We don’t have a big budget. I was speaking to the CEO of Namibia Rugby, and their budget is 25 times bigger than we have. We are working on playing three quality games next year, hopefully two at home because as director of rugby, it is also one of my resolutions to play on home soil.”