ercrugby.com columnist Peter Jackson speaks to hat-trick hero Takudzwa Ngwenya in the South of France after a memorable day for the African born US Eagle in Europe.
Takudzwa Ngwenya spent the first sixteen years of his life at home in Africa and the next five in America hoping to make it big in football. While his two younger brothers preferred soccer, the eldest set out to rub padded shoulders with the San Francisco 49ers.
Somewhere along the way he got diverted into rugby instead and now the inter-continental flier who had never played a serious game of Union until four years ago finds himself topping the bill on the most colourful club stage in Europe.
In the course of a sunny afternoon in Napoleon's favourite resort down by the Atlantic, the Biarritz wing went from nowhere to the top of the Heineken Cup leaderboard.
The blue riband event of the club game has always prided itself on a propensity for the meteoric but few can have been as dazzling as the one which came out of a clear blue sky above the Bay of Biscay last Saturday. Gloucester hardly knew what hit them halfway through another gripping weekend which leaves just four clubs with two wins out of two Biarritz, Toulouse, Stade Francais and, best of all for those of us who remember them in their pomp, the renascent Scarlets.
An opponent whose name they would have been hard pushed to pronounce (Un-gwen-ya) never mind spell had demolished them with one of the fastest hat-tricks in Heineken history, an exquisite piece of work all done and dusted in fifteen minutes from start to finish.
The damage added up to a sobering experience in southern France for Gloucester and Northampton Saints, two of the more ambitious clubs from the English Premiership subsiding by an aggregate margin of 71-28.
The 400 kilometre journey across the breadth of the country to witness both matches, from Perpignan and the Mediterranean in the east to the shores of the Atlantic the next day, proved more than worthwhile if only to see 'Zee' as his team-mates call him put the Z-factor back into
French sport for the first time since Zinedine Zedan made his explosive exit during the last World Cup football final.
Not for nothing does the Zimbabwean bear a christian name which translates into English as 'The Blessed One. 'Gloucester, plagued before the match by a catalogue of injury and suspension so severe that they summoned the noble Jake Boer out of Premiership retirement in his native South Africa on a two-month contract, could be forgiven for thinking that Somebody Up There has it in for them.
On this evidence, Ngwenya has everything to become the box-office hit of the season. How he ever he became a rugby professional in the first place is made all the more interesting by the fact that he has made it via Harare, Austin and Dallas.
The first is his home-town, the second where he enrolled at the University of Texas and the third where he first played club rugby. The family emigrated to Texas eight years ago when 'Zee' was 16.Two years later he went to Austin, the state capital, to study radiology but, more urgently, to play American football. 'During the off-season, I played a bit of rugby sevens for Dallas to stay in shape,' he said in a quiet corner away from the babble of the home dressing-room immediately after his club had seized control of Pool 2.
'One of the American national coaches saw me and it all went from here. I'd tried my best in American football but they had big boys of 240 pounds who could run almost as fast as I could. I didn't think I would make it because I was too light. When I started playing rugby, I didn't have any skills. I could just run.'
Nigel Melville, the former England scrum-half then in charge of the American Eagles, rushed him straight into the Test team at the World Cup two years ago which he marked by having the nerve to give Bryan Habana the run-around in scoring the try of the tournament.
Ngwenya does a lot more than 'just run' now. In addition to the natural pace reflected in a personal best of 10.5 seconds for the 100 metres, 'Zee' appears to have mastered many aspects of a wing's craft.
His first try against Gloucester, a classic example of the in-out trademark of a high-class finisher, was done at such high speed that not even as sharp an operator as James Simpson-Daniel could prevent it.
The second was a textbook chip-and-chase executed within inches of the right touchline to such perfection that he ran round the formidable figure of Lesley Vainikolo, caught the ball on the full and dotted it down behind the posts.
The band in the Serge Kampf stand celebrated the first with a blast of the Pogues' Dirty Old Town and trumpeted the second with Johnny Cash's Ring of Fire. T
his remember, was Ngwenya's hat-trick try was almost routine in contrast and he would have poached a fourth had Irish referee Alan Lewis not disallowed it despite giving Gloucester generous advantage time to exploit a Biarritz knock-on. While they will have to manage without their American wing for next month's two-leg decider against Uruguay for a place in England's group at the next World Cup, Biarritz are not the only French club eager to spread their wings into bigger stadia in Spain.
Perpignan's dream of building a Catalan rugby empire on the model of Barcelona FC is reflected in their change of colours. The gaudy old yellow and red strip has been replaced by the purple and blue of their Catalan footballing brothers across the Spanish border. While Barca bask in the glory of a European crown which they won last season for the third time, Perpignan have still to win one.
While their emphatic demolition of the Saints repaired some of the damage caused by their embarrassing trip to Treviso the previous week, it will be of little consequence if they fail to complete the recovery and lose to
Munster in Limerick when hostilities resume in mid-December.
Winning there will require changing the habit of a lifetime if USAP (Union Sportive Arleguins Perpignan) are to open the way to securing their elusive goal of staging a home quarter-final before 50,000 at Barcelona's Olympic Stadium.
The reality is that one trophy matters more than any other to the French champions, retaining the domestic crown which they won last season for the first time since 1955. Followers of Liverpool FC will understand why.
So how committed are Perpignan to conquering Europe?
'I think we are committed,' Perry Freshwater, their veteran England prop, said at the fortress-like Stade Aime Giral. 'But I don't think we are as committed as we could be. The French championship is such a huge thing.
'We set our goals and I do think everyone here sees the Top 14 championship as a more realistic competition and it has been that way for quite a while. There is a certain feeling that Europe is for other teams but we will give it everything we've got at Munster and see how we go.'
In a fiendishly difficult pool where one point might easily make all the difference in the final reckoning, Perpignan can only hope they are not made to suffer for missing a trick in bringing the Saints back to reality after their monstrous win over Munster.
A penalty count of 18-5 emphasising their superiority, the try-bonus point was theirs for the taking for most of a second period when they botched every opportunity to add to the two scored before half-time.
As part of the build-up to next month's Cardiff 2014 Heineken Cup and Amlin Challenge Cup finals weekend, ERC has joined forces with the WRU, Cardiff Blues and adidas to develop an annual grassroots community rugby programme targeting young players.
The Ulster Rugby full back, Jared Payne (No 15), has been suspended for two (2) weeks following an independent Disciplinary Hearing in Dublin arising from the Heineken Cup quarter-final match against Saracens at Ravenhill Stadium on Saturday, 5 April.