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Monday, 18 March, 2002, 17:11 GMT
The king of Bloemfontein
Kennedy Tsimba: A fly-half making waves in SA
Kennedy Tsimba: A fly-half making waves in SA
BBC Sport Online's Mohammed Allie meets up with Kennedy Tsimba - a black fly-half who is fast becoming an Afrikaner hero.

It a sign of the changing times in South Africa that a black rugby player has become a folk hero in Bloemfontein.

Such is the popularity of Zimbabwean international Kennedy Tsimba, fly-half of the Free State Cheetahs provincial team, that he is hardly able to walk around town without being stopped by fans for autographs or a chat about the weekend's game.

If you play sport it's your capabilities that count not the colour of your skin
Piet Pretorius - Free State Cheetahs fan
In fact, after a victory some fans line up outside his flat with cakes and other gifts while local restaurants invite him for a complimentary meal as a token of appreciation.

Tsimba, 26, takes everything in his stride saying he's not concerned about the invasion of his privacy.

"The fans are important to the team," he says.

"Ultimately they are the ones who pay our salaries. Without them there would be no team so it's no problem to sign autographs or chat to them."

Kennedy Tsimba is action for the Free State
Kennedy Tsimba is action for the Free State
A typical scene occurs while chatting to Tsimba in a coffee shop - one of the growing legion of fans, Griet Bergh - steps up to request his autograph for her two young boys.

"I'm proud of him. My kids love him because he's such a good player," says Griet Bergh.

Piet Pretorius, a local businessman, regards Tsimba as one of the Cheetahs' best players.

For him the fact that Tsimba is a black Zimbabwean is of no concern.

"If you play sport it's your capabilities that count not the colour of your skin," he says.

"I don't know why people must always bring colour into the story. I see him as an excellent sportsman from Bloemfontein."

SA challenge

After spending a few years playing for Bath in the English Premiership, Tsimba opted to further his career in South Africa on the suggestion of his late brother Richard, who was the first black player to represent Zimbabwe at rugby when he played at the 1987 World Cup in New Zealand.

"I knew South African rugby had a reputation of being tough and physical but I accepted the challenge - I always do better under pressure," he says.

"Ray Mordt, the former Zimbabwean and Springbok winger, suggested I go to Free State because their open style of running rugby suited my game."

Tsimba could one day play for South Africa if special dispensation is granted
Tsimba could one day play for South Africa if special dispensation is granted
Although he has since been named Player of the Series in the domestic Vodacom Cup competition in 2000 Tsimba recalls his doubts before playing his first game for the Cheetahs.

"I was nervous because a lot of questions needed to be answered about my ability especially playing at fly-half which is the most important position in the team," he says.

"Black players were normally played out on the wing and here I was playing in the position where most of the decisions in the game are made."

Living in an Afrikaner-dominated town means Tsimba has had to learn the Afrikaans language.

"I've picked up quite a lot from speaking to people. Besides, most of our moves on the field are called in Afrikaans. I can understand when people speak to me although I still have difficulty in answering them," says Tsimba.

Harold Verster, President of the Free State Rugby Union says he is totally stunned by Tsimba's progress and his superstar status in Bloemfontein.

"The way people support him is phenomenal. Kennedy was accepted by the white farmers in the area with open arms. Today he's one of their biggest heroes," he says.

"If they phone us to get a speaker, someone to be present at their golf days or to open a store Kennedy is normally the player they request along with well-known Springbok players like Rassie Erasmus and Andre Venter."

Kennedy has brought a different flavour to our union and has attracted more black fans
Free State marketing manager Lindi van Heerden
In the absence of top quality black players from the Free State, Tsimba's success has proven to be a bonus for the development of rugby in the region's black areas.

"The people in the black community are very proud of Kennedy and many have now taken an interest in rugby because of his success," adds Lindi van Heerden, the union's marketing manager.

"In the past it was mainly a white sport but Kennedy has brought a different flavour to our union and has attracted more black fans to the stadium."

Such is the impact of Tsimba's play that attempts are now being made to get a special dispensation from the International Rugby Board to have him declared eligible for the Springbok team.

Free State fans would simply love seeing their star player donning the famous green and gold of one of world rugby's premier sides.

See also:

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14 Mar 02 |  International
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