Jacques – Tribute to an Absolute Legend

IN THE end, the outpouring of tribute was abundantly deserved for a wonderful sportsman, a fierce but dignified competitor, a patriot and above all — a God-fearing man of high moral integrity.

The emotional farewell messages that swept across social media last weekend following announcement by Zimbabwean rugby star Jacques Leitao that he was retiring from the game, following an uninterrupted 12-year spell of international service to his country, are perhaps best captured by one Pfungwa Sanyanga, who remarked on Facebook: “The only thing that’s better than your rugby skills is the person you are, Jacques. Congrats on a great run, win or lose you flew our flag well, and with pride.”

I feel lucky to have watched top-notch Zimbabwean sportsmen across different disciplines — great athletes who were not only tremendously gifted and as good as any the world had to offer, but men and women who represented their country for many years with honour, pride and the outmost respect.

Our revered former football captain, Peter Ndlovu, who is also the country’s most capped international in the sport, is one.

You talk of Andy Flower, a former number one-ranked Test batsman, Zimbabwean cricket’s first real superstar and a man who always reminded himself of his important role as a sporting ambassador for his country.

There are many more sports-stars from this country who wore their hearts on their sleeves and never once forgot their roots even with the world on their feet.

Nick Price, a former world number one golfer and three-time major winner.

Bruce Grobbelaar, six-time title winner with English football giants Liverpool and much-loved goalkeeper for Zimbabwe’s national team.

Kirsty Coventry, a former Olympic champion and world record-holder who swam Zimbabwe to glory and since 2004 singlehandedly carried her country’s hopes at the iconic sporting showcase.

Kennedy Tsimba, who despite representing the country just six times, was one of the best flyhalves on the planet at the peak of his powers — a Currie Cup record-holder and World Rugby Hall of Fame inductee.

Pity, because of the small profile of rugby in Zimbabwe — quite frustratingly and annoyingly so given the immense potential the game has — a man like Jacques Leitao will never been viewed, on a national scale, in the same vein as the aforementioned.

But those of us who keenly follow the sport know it, and can dare say that Leitao, in his pomp, fitted in that category. He was as naturally talented and good on the eye on a rugby field as Peter Ndlovu was on a football pitch or as Andy Flower was at the crease.

And in a befitting honour, the Zimbabwean rugby community last week united in paying glowing tribute to a man who played the game with much flair, grace and dignity.

Statistics are not well-kept in this country, thus it is hard to ascertain exactly how many caps, Test or otherwise, Leitao amassed over the 12 years he played for Zimbabwe.

But considering he was always almost readily available for the national side because he played all his club rugby here for Harare Sports Club and then Old Georgians, let us just say, at an average of five international appearances per year, he clocked some 50 odd caps or so. No small feat.

“Your humility, integrity, courage and passion have done you, your family and your country proud . . . your legacy will serve to show the way for those who follow. Duty incredibly well done,” commented former Zimbabwe Olympian judoka Debi Jeans on Leitao’s post announcing his retirement.

Former teammates and opponents, coaches, referees and fans alike all spoke of their enormous respect for Leitao.

“Congrats on an amazing career Jacques! Very proud to have gotten to play alongside you, an absolute legend of Zimbabwe Rugby. Wishing you all the best for the future,” wrote former Zimbabwe lock forward Michael Passaportis.

Old Georgians club-mate Tonde Tarusenga chipped in: “One day I will tell my kids that I played alongside one of the greatest to come out of Zimbabwe. You’re a great player but an even greater human being. Enjoy post-rugby life big man!”

Old Hararians captain Tichafara Makwanya, long-time teammate of Leitao at international level and great rival on the domestic front, summed up the esteem in which the gifted flanker was held by both peers and opponents.

“An honour to have played with and against you. Always been a leading light and have inspired many along the way. You set standard that will go on forever and served with all your might! Blessed be your journey! Happy to know I don’t have to face you again!,” wrote Makwanya.

Mudiwa Mundawarara, one of the country’s best referees, called on Leitao to pass on his experience from the game: “Well done Jacques! The game cannot afford to lose you. Coach or ref, but don’t disappear.”

Leitao’s former Harare Sports Club and Zimbabwe Under-21 coach Nsikelelo “Sykes” Sibanda posted:

“Well done Jacques Leitao, you’re one player I’ll never forget, humble, committed and always had something to smile about. I even remember your first day at training. May God continue to Bless you and your family bud. Enjoy your retirement.”

A man of deep faith and high family values, Leitao was a well-respected figure in the dressing room, looked up to by both senior players and rookies as a leader and example of morality.

“Well done champ, your faithful service of your God, your country and to rugby has always been an inspiration to me and so many others. You have had an awesome impact on and off the field! Thank you Legend. God bless you in this next chapter,” wrote old Georgians teammate Scott Flowers.

Legend is a label freely bestowed upon people, especially in sport. In Leitao’s case though, it finds full justification as shown by how Zimrugby followers rose in unison to shower this unheralded servant of Zimbabwean sport with praise.

In addition to putting body on the line for his country countless times in the main version of the game, Leitao also captained Zimbabwe’s sevens team with distinction for a lengthy period, posting many memorable achievements with the Cheetahs.

Bruce Hobson, the former national sevens team manager and later president of the Zimbabwe Rugby Union (ZRU), reckons Leitao was, at his peak, a world-class rugby player in both forms.

“Jacques has been at the forefront of so many sevens campaigns and it’s hard to believe he is finally hanging up his boots,” said Hobson.

“He encapsulated the vision of the Cheetahs and helped us build a credible brand through training ethos built on commitment, pride and discipline. He was the ultimate ‘captain courageous’ and on his day could have competed for a place in any international team. Whilst he was surrounded by some exceptional players, his leadership role was so powerful. I count myself lucky to have been able to share some wonderful rugby times with this great guy.”

A tenacious tackler and superb ball-carrier, Leitao was one of those players who never seem to do anything wrong out on the park.

The saddest aspect of Leitao’s retirement is that he prospered in an amateur sport in his country and never played at the highest level of fifteens rugby, which his talents cried for.

“He was my captain at sevens, but in terms of fifteens, with the talents he had, those are the guys you want to see play at the highest level. Jacques was a talented, hard-working and disciplined player. That’s the quality he brought to the team. No wonder his career was that long,” said former Sables captain Cleopas Makotose.

Makotose, who was part of Zimbabwe’s squad at the 2009 World Cup Sevens captained by Leitao, added: “Remember at the 2009 sevens World Cup in Dubai that’s where he got engaged to his wife. You see, that’s what these tournaments mean to players.

It’s a pity he didn’t get to play at the biggest World Cup, the fifteens. That would have been the cherry on the top of his career. I hope he stays in the game. Those are the kind of people we need in the structures.

He is an asset to Zimrugby. He might not coach, but given the platform, he will always have something to say.”

Leitao is 35 now. I personally hoped he would hang on a little longer, perhaps for one more season, especially with 2019 World Cup qualification looking like a real possibility. Victor Matfield was 38 at the last World Cup, and Jacques has not looked like losing shape in recent times even as age caught up with him.

But Leitao the man will have no regrets, and those closer to him know it, and can see the light-hearted side of his retirement.

“You ran a great race, Mr Leitao,” commented Sables speedster Tafadzwa Chitokwindo. “It’s been an honour playing and working under your leadership. PS: Hoping you were not coerced into writing this statement!”

And then there was Cornelius Joshua Rudziva, who drew a rather witty comparison between Leitao’s long international rugby career and the tenure of the country’s deposed president. “Mugabe of Zim Rugby,” commented Rudziva.

At least Leitao knew when it was time to leave.

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