By Petros Kausiyo
Rugby Africa and Tunisia Rugby were yesterday forced to apologise to their Zimbabwean counterparts after the North Africans, in an act plucked from hell, detained the Sables at Cartage Airport for six hours on Monday night before booking them into a sub-standard lodge which the team rejected.
As outrage mounted, with the ill-treatment of the Sables going viral on social media and torching a storm in the sport, the African body apologised to the Zimbabwe Rugby Union and the Zimbabwe Government for the debacle, which shamed the continental game and took it back to the dark ages.
The Sables, who are taking part in the Rugby Africa Gold Cup, which is also serving as the qualifiers for the 2019 World Cup, flew into the visa and accommodation storm from Nairobi where they had played and lost to Kenya’s Simbas last Saturday.
Zimbabwe, seeking their first win, will play Tunisia at Stade Musta Ben Jannet Monastir in Tunis on Saturday.
Peter de Villiers’ men had not anticipated they would find hosts who are still living in the Stone Age when they arrived in the Tunisian capital, armed with a letter from Tunisia Rugby president Belkhirta Aref, assuring them that they would get their visas at the port of entry.
Instead, they were met with hostility, amid reports that the players’ passports were confiscated with the team ordered to pay 600 euros to enter Tunisia.
Interestingly, only those with Zimbabwean passports had their documents seized as coach De Villiers, a South African national, and one player who travels on a Portuguese passport, did not experience this outrageous act by the hosts.
That was before they met with more horror after they realised that the Tunisians had booked them into poor lodgings, which they rejected, and opted to take their luggage onto the streets of Tunis.
As pictures of the Sables sleeping on the sidewalks of Tunis next to their luggage went viral after some players posted them on social media platforms, the initial perception had been that it had been the ZRU which had literally abandoned their flagship team and left them living like “homeless people”.
But the apologies from both Rugby Africa and Tunisia Rugby appeared to vindicate Aaron Jani’s leadership and the Sables Trust, headed by prominent lawyer Gerald Mlotshwa that handles the player welfare issues.
“Rugby Africa has been made aware of the difficulties encountered by the Zimbabwean Rugby team — the Sables — with regards to their accommodation in Tunisia.
“We would like to reassure the Zimbabwean Ministry of Sports, Zimbabwe Rugby Union, and all partners and fans that the situation was addressed immediately, and an acceptable solution has been found this morning. Tunisia Rugby Union took the Sables management to visit another hotel which was accepted.
“Rugby Africa and Tunisia Rugby Union would like to express their sincere apologies to the Sables team and management for this unfortunate situation. This does not reflect the standards of the Rugby Africa Gold Cup competition and we sincerely regret any prejudice caused,” read part of the Rugby Africa apology.
Rugby Africa also indicated that their executive member, Khaled Babbou, had been dispatched to Beja to inspect the facilities and meet with the Sables.
In the same statement, Tunisia Rugby, whose officials were clearly playing mind games aimed at frustrating the Sables ahead of Saturday’s clash, also apologised through Babbou for the debacle.
“I apologise on behalf of Tunisia Rugby Union, we pride ourselves in hosting Rugby Africa tournaments every year and make every effort to meet the best international standards in terms of accommodation and other infrastructure.
“Something went wrong for which I am sorry, but this was corrected this morning in consultation with the Sables management team. I can assure you that there was absolutely no intention to destabilise our opponents and we will make every possible effort to ensure they have a good preparation ahead of Saturday’s match.”
The President of Rugby Africa, Abdelaziz Bougja, confirmed “our hosting agreements are signed by the six participating unions in the Rugby Africa Gold Cup and are very clear and strict in terms of accommodation standards. We rely on our unions to make sure the requirements are met and it is unfortunate that it seemed not to be the case with this hotel in Tunisia.
“However, Tunisia Rugby Union has our trust, they are long-term partners to Rugby Africa, hosting several matches and tournaments on our behalf every year, I know for a fact that hospitality matters to them and they have taken this issue very seriously and are rectifying it.
“Player welfare is at the heart of our preoccupations so we are not taking this lightly. We wish both teams the best for Saturday’s game. The Gold Cup has been a huge success so far, helping to raise standards of African rugby, and popularity of the game, we would like to thank the six teams, six hosting unions, Ministries of Sports, our broadcaster Kwese Sports and all our partners and sponsors for their support and assistance,” said Bougja.
The Zimbabwe Government and the ZRU had also voiced their concerns on the nightmare which the Sables were subjected to.
Youth, Sport, Arts and Recreation Minister Kazembe Kazembe said they had been perturbed by the reports from Tunis and had, through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, also raised their concerns with the Tunisian Government.
“There have been social media reports that have surfaced making numerous allegations of neglect and abuse of Zimbabwe National Rugby Team (The Sables) in Tunisia.
“Contrary to these negative media reports, my Ministry, together with Sports and Recreation Commission and Zimbabwe Rugby Union, we would like to set the record straight.
“The Zimbabwe National Rugby Team is taking part in what is known as the Rugby Africa Gold Cup campaign that doubles up as a World Cup qualifier and are currently in Tunisia. This competition is governed by Rugby Africa who licence this tournament and as such are responsible for logistics for all teams taking part in this competition.
“Each Union is afforded a grant to host teams and, to this end, we as Zimbabwe were afforded Euro 70 per person per night to host Morocco. Zimbabwe hosted Morocco on the June 16, two weeks ago and the Morocco team were housed at the Cresta Oasis Hotel, which is a three-star hotel.
“In addition, we afforded them a luxury air-conditioned bus for their local transportation and would have expected Tunisia Rugby Union to reciprocate in accordance with the Hosting Manual.
“According to the hosting agreement, each hosting union is responsible for speaking to the powers that be with regards to visas and as such, we pre-cleared the Moroccan team who spent less than half an hour at our Immigration services in Harare.
“Since last night, I can safely tell you that the players and management have been fed and their hotel changed to suit the standards that we have always afforded visiting nations to Zimbabwe.
“I have also been assured by the ZRU that all allowances up and until the Kenya Test have been paid. We will continue to monitor the situation and we will appraise you should the situation change. We encourage the Sables to perform their national duty and continue to be ambassadors for the country by winning against Tunisia this coming Saturday.”
It also emerged that both Jani and Mlotshwa had spent the better part of Monday night battling with the North Africans to press them into abiding by Rugby Africa standards.
The ZRU president and the Sables Trust chairman were also not amused by sensational claims made by flanker Takudzwa Mandiwanza in an audio that was also widely circulated on social media in which the Sables forward claimed they had not been paid for their match against Kenya.
Mandiwanza painted a grim picture of the situation in the Sables camp, claiming that De Villiers had chipped in to avert hunger, but the union disputed the allegations, pointing to the fact the senior team had been catered for well by the Kenyans in Nairobi while the players’ payments had been transferred into their accounts on Monday, given that they had played the game over the weekend and travelled to Tunis on Sunday night via Dubai.
“We have not been paid our daily allowances for our duration in Kenya, including our match fees that we did not receive. Now we’re in Tunisia, we were detained at the airport for close to six hours, with no allowances given to us.”
Mandiwanza claimed that De Villiers bought the players sandwiches and drinks out of his own pocket.
Jani described as unfortunate Mandiwanza’s claims and noted that the forward had sought to pour his frustration on the ZRU when it was clear it was the Tunisians who have the obligation to host the Sables.