IMPRESSIVE loose forward Jacques Leitao bagged four tries to help Zimbabwe to a thrilling bonus point win over hosts Madagascar in the opening match of the 2015 Rugby World Cup final qualifying tournament at the Mahamasina Stadium in Antananarivo, Madagascar, yesterday.
Madagascar . . . (15) 22
Zimbabwe . . . . (22) 57
Led by their dominant pack of forwards, the Sables outscored the hosts, who were backed by a strong 35 000 home crowd, by eight tries to three.
Leitao ran in four tries while fly-half Guy Cronje scored 15 points with the other tries coming from Lambert Groenewald, Riaan O’Niell, Stephan Hunduza and Farai Mudariki.
Victory did not, however, come on a silver platter for the Sables as they were made to work overtime late in the first half as the hosts threatened to claw their way back into the match with 15 unanswered points after Zimbabwe had stormed to an early 22-0 lead.
Madagascar started off the match at a frantic pace, but Zimbabwe’s defence held on firmly and could have taken the lead in the seventh minute. Scrum-half Hilton Mudariki knocked the ball on while trying to offload at the corner.
However, Zimbabwe’s heavy pack turned over the resultant Madagascar scrum with eighthman Groenewald touching down in the corner for the game’s opening try.
Cronje missed the conversion, but made sure a few minutes later when he converted a penalty.
Rattled by Zimbabwe’s superb start, Madagascar lost their discipline and were reduced to 14 after their player was sent to the sin bin by South African referee Lourens Van der Merve.
Groenewald, a fierce ball carrier, returned to torment the hosts with a powerful run from inside the Zimbabwe half before releasing Jacques Leitao who scored the second try under the post which Cronje successfully converted to give Zimbabwe a 15-0 lead.
Zimbabwe’s dominant forwards ensured their backline continued to get regular clean balls which resulted in the third converted try by inside centre Riaan O’Niell to stretch the lead to 22-0.
After getting off to a flying start, Zimbabwe momentarily lost their concentration midway in the second half as Madagascar powered by their fast running game got themselves back in the match through two quick tries inside three minutes.
The first try came through winger Jean de Dieu Rakotonirina, who stretched over the try line despite a last ditch cover tackle by Graeme Lawler before the hosts’ fly-half José Rakoto Harison, who earlier missed the conversion, made amends with a converted try moments later to take the scoreline to 22-12.
The Sables’ troubles were further compounded after skipper Danny Hondo was yellow carded after a high tackle on a Madagascar player.
Madagascar made full use of the advantage as Zimbabwe’s lack of game time before the tournament began to tell with uncharacteristic handling errors and missed tackles with the halftime approaching.
Crowd favourite Harison notched in another penalty as Madagascar further reduced the arrears to leave the Sables searching for answers at halftime.
After an unconvincing end to the first half Zimbabwe hit their straps in the second half as they powered to an easy win, scoring five tries in the second half.
Leitao barged over the whitewash for his second try from the back of a driving maul soon after the restart, but Madagascar immediately hit back through full-back Solonirina Rasoanaivo.
An impressive Leitao completed his hattrick soon afterwards before setting up Stephan Hunduza for a sixth try which was converted by Cronje to take the lead to 43-22.
Replacement prop Farai Mudariki, who was making his Sables debut, completed a free flowing move for the seventh before Leitao completed the second half onslaught after finishing off a 50-metre driving maul.
Meanwhile, in an earlier match at the same venue, Kenya showed why there is no substitute for good preparations as they pulled off a huge upset after rallying from behind to stun pre-tournament favourites Namibia 29-22.
Zimbabwe will play their second match against Namibia on Wednesday.