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A ‘Precious’ Diamond in the rough, Pazani braces for Tik Tok Women’s Six Nations

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By Caleb Kundai Mutombwa/sportsgazette.co.uk

NEWCASTLE – Refereeing is a journey that begins in different ways. Some are ex players, the likes of Sara Cox, Glen Jackson and Karl Dickson. Meanwhile officials such as Nigel Owens, Mark Lawrence and Rasta Rashivhenge never played at the highest level, but the love for the game and all it’s nuances is what drew them to the whistle.

For Zimbabwe’s top referee, who could easily be rugby’s best officiator in Africa by some distance, that journey required some parts of the universe to conspire in her favour.

In 2012, current Zimbabwe Rugby Referees Society (ZRRS) president Abigail Kawonza took a friend to a rugby referees training match at the then Dairibord Schools Rugby Festival. Little did she know she had discovered another ‘Precious’ diamond in the Zimbabwean rugby landscape.

That friend was Precious Pazani, who earlier this week touched down in Newcastle to be part of the officiating team for the TikTok Women’s Six Nations.

It marks a significant moment in African rugby history. Although this will be Pazani’s second appearance at a Six Nations tournament after the U20 edition last year, she will become the first African outside of South Africa to officiate in the senior men’s or women’s competition.

Reflecting on her career from that seminal moment in 2012, Pazani considered Kawonza to be her inspiration.

She said: “Abigail was both a friend and a hero. Her being one of the first female referees made it more realistic for me to give it a shot.

“It is life changing to be given this opportunity. When I was in France, I could sense how privileged I was having to share the same space with the likes of Sara Cox, Joy Neville and Aimee Barrett-Theron was just mind blowing.”

Rugby, however, was not Pazani’s first love. A basketball enthusiast at heart, she spent the better part of four years juggling her basketball duties with her rugby ambitions.

“The seasons never clashed. I was a basketball girl in summer and a rugby girl in winter. Even though I never received down time, I enjoyed both sports as they were so different for me and served me differently.”

Precious Pazani started off as a basketball player before switching to rugby

What basketball lost, rugby has gained massively. A referee who keeps improving and impressing the governing body’s referee manager.

Multitasking has never left Pazani’s life since her basketball-rugby days, doubling up as Physical Education teacher and hostel superintendent at one of the high schools in a small town in Zimbabwe as her day job.

She said: “My school has been hugely supportive. I sometimes miss up to three weeks of school while I am busy with rugby duties. In some workplaces I would have had to choose between rugby and a career.”

“My teaching has benefited my officiating. I found my management skills on the pitch improving as I became a more experienced educator.” she added.

Rugby is still an amateur sport in Zimbabwe and the nation itself has only been to two Rugby World Cups, their last showing coming long ago in 1991. Rarely does World Rugby select referees from countries not taking part in the competition.

Pazani said: “If rugby was professional in Zimbabwe we would all want to do it as a full time job but currently we have to swim in these mirky waters as they are, an experience I view as a privilege rather than pressure.”

Pazani’s selection into the officiating team for the Six Nations thus stands as an anomaly, proving her excellence with the whistle.

However, the Six Nations is not her end game. Pazani hopes to keep climbing the referee ranks.

She said: “I want to be part of a World Cup, be it a rugby sevens World Cup, or a 15s World Cup. It is a target I have set for myself and I am sure with the support of Rugby Africa and the ZRRS, it is not an unattainable dream.”

Rugby is a strong part of the nation’s school sport ethos but recent economic and social challenges have seen it slid down the popularity ladder as other well funded sports like cricket and hockey take center stage.

Being Zimbabwean comes with its own challenges as an aspiring top-flight referee, Pazani sharing some of her more difficult experiences with the whistle.

She said: “There is this venue called Old Georgians sports club in Harare. When that place is rainy, you might as well be officiating on a mudslide. It’s an insufferable experience that I do not wish on anyone!”

Having now landed in Newcastle ahead of England v Scotland in the Tiktok Six Nations, Pazani hopes this will be the start of a bumper year of officiating. One hopes that she continues to be a beacon for all aspiring referees in Tier 2 nations.

Her success shows that it doesn’t matter how strong your nation’s rugby team is, refereeing diamonds can be found in the rough.