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Club stalwart gains Test call-up
While his Blackheath team mates were training in freezing temperatures at Rectory Field shortly before Christmas, 34-year old Club prop forward Nick Winwood was in sunny Dubai gaining his first full international caps playing for Zimbabwe in the Emirates Airlines Cup of Nations.
“It was the first time I’ve been selected for the full national squad and so the opening match against Hong Kong was my first cap. I started at tight-head and played there again in the following games against Belgium and United Arab Emirates. It was great to be part of the national set up and part of a very intense Test series - three Tests in seven days!”
Nick works in the City as Commercial Director for a business training company. He first came to the UK to study at university in 1998 and, after stints in Germany and going back to play provincial rugby in Zimbabwe, he decided to put down rugby roots at Blackheath 11 years ago. He’s been a stalwart of the Club ever since.
“Being a member of the highly competitive squad at Blackheath has definitely helped my preparation in terms of playing at the right intensity and having the fitness levels required. It was a shock to go from snow and near-minus temperatures to training every day and playing in thirty degree heat in Dubai but it was so good to be playing the style of rugby I grew up with in Zimbabwe – fast-paced, quick hands and players who like to keep the ball alive as much as possible.”
“Most of the squad were guys I was meeting for the first time and so it was important to fit in at training, get to know the moves and patterns as quickly as possible. With some of our usual squad away playing for Zimbabwe on the IRB 7's circuit, it was an opportunity for some of the younger boys to step up and make a claim to be a part of the full 15-a-side squad going forward. The aim is to have a reasonably settled team by April next year to play in the World Cup qualifiers in the Africa Cup tournament.”
“Zimbabwe won that tournament in 2012, which saw our rankings jump from 48th to 29th. With a new improved ranking, we are starting to get games against higher-ranked nations, which is essential to making sure we are competing at a strong level.”
“The Rugby World Cup 2015 is still something of a dream but one that isn't too far out of reach for the squad. There is a huge amount of work to do to be in with a chance, but if this last week has shown me anything, it's that this is a squad with real ambition and determination to play on the big stage.”
“It hasn't gone unnoticed that the eventual qualifier from Africa will line up alongside the All Blacks and Argentina in Pool C and, although those results might be thought of by others as a foregone conclusion, that is just the tonic needed to drive this squad forward.”
The 2012 Cup of Nations in Dubai was an important warm-up for forthcoming World Cup matches next year in the qualifying competitions for the Rugby World Cup 2015 and pitched Zimbabwe, Hong Kong, Belgium and hosts United Arab Emirates against each other in a round robin tournament of three matches each.
In their first game, although leading 7-6 at half-time against last year’s champions Hong Kong, the Sables, as Zimbabwe are known, eventually lost 22-7.
Four days later, they faced a very physical Belgium, eight places above them in the IRB rankings. In spite of another half-time Sables lead of 11-8, Belgium capitalised on some Zimbabwe yellow cards and ran out winners by 28pts to 11. The final match showed that Zimbabwe had learned from the previous games, the Sables putting United Arab Emirates to the sword by 65pts to 14.
“It was disappointing to lose our first two games to both Hong Kong and the eventual winners Belgium when we were winning at half time in both matches. After these games the squad felt that they were games we could, and possibly should, have won and that we let ourselves down with basic errors that ultimately cost us. There was a bit of naivety within the young and relatively inexperienced squad and we perhaps didn't cope under the pressure as well as we needed to in a Test Match.”
“Having said that, those games were a tremendous learning curve for Zimbabwe and we took the lessons learned into our final match with United Arab Emirates. They were a weaker side in comparison to Belgium and Hong Kong but, having by this time spent ten days in camp together and having had two games under our belt, the cohesion within our squad was greater and the game management much better. It allowed us to play the more open style of rugby we wanted to. A final score of 65-14 is indicative of what is achievable when we get it right.”
Nick has no doubt that his time playing in the tournament in Dubai was something very special both in his rugby career and in his feelings for his country of birth.
“The greatest thing personally for me last week, was being part of a brilliant squad of players and people. There were no egos or attitudes at all. Everybody was dying to play for both their country and their team mates without raising any personal agendas. It was a positive and infectious feeling running right through the team. The management and coaches were brilliant in keeping the squad fresh and fit with minimal turnaround between matches and I give huge credit to those involved in even getting the squad there, given the dire financial situation at the Zimbabwe Rugby Union. Every single person involved in the management does so out of their own time and energy and it's humbling to see the lengths some of the guys, players included, have gone through to be part of this.”
“Winning my first caps has been a very special thing indeed - an absolute honour and without a doubt the pinnacle of anyone's career. I hope I get the chance to add to my tally, providing Blackheath’s Performance Director Yusuf Ibrahim and Forwards’ Coach Bobby Howe let me go, of course!”
Not just now, Nick's next assignment will be as part of the Blackheath squad to take on Sedgley Park this Saturday at Rectory Field, kick-off 3.00 pm.