The Copperbelt is the heart of Zambian rugby. Each town has its own rugby team, with the level of support and facilities varying from club to club. Since Mopani Copper Mines stepped in as the main sponsors of Mufulira Rugby Club, its teams have gone from strength to strength.

Welcome to Mufulira Rugby Club

Welcome to Mufulira Rugby Club, fondly known as the Leopard’s Cage. It’s home to the Mufulira Leopards, one of the most formidable clubs in the National Rugby League, with Mopani Copper Mines as its major sponsor.

Although historically seen as an expatriate sport inherited from the colonial era, rugby has been rapidly gaining home-grown support in Zambia over the last two decades. Today, it even competes with football for popularity.

Meet the Captain

It’s not entirely accurate to call Ali Bhika “the Captain”. He is captain of not one or even two, but three rugby teams in Mufulira, each with solid reputations in their own right: Mufulira Leopards Rugby Club, the Zambia National 15s side, and the Mopani Central Training Centre rugby team.

“My journey here in Mufulira started in 2017 when I relocated from Lusaka, where I was living and playing my rugby. Mopani got hold of me through Mufulira Rugby Club and asked if I would join them, and offered me employment at the same time. After a few months, I had the privilege of being chosen as Captain of Mufulira Leopards. It’s been a fantastic journey. I’ve seen a lot of things change: there’s been a lot of advancement in infrastructure, the team dynamics have changed, and there’s been a lot of personal development. Things have been very positive for us as youths, as rugby players, and as employees of Mopani.”

 Employee, pro rugby player, or student?

Ali is currently studying instrumentation in the engineering department of Mopani Central Training Centre (MCTC), a state-of-the-art institution with engineering and mining schools that were set up in 2014 to address the shortage of technical and artisanal skills within the country’s mining industry. When Ali graduates at the end of the year, he’ll begin his career in copper mining in a role that involves analysis and quality control of plant processes, including the extraction of copper from ore. Technically speaking, his employment began when he enrolled at MCTC, where the inaugural students were fully sponsored by Mopani for tuition fees, learning materials, accommodation, meals and paid monthly allowances before they qualify and begin working. Somehow, Ali manages to find time to captain Mufulira Leopards, the Zambia National 15s side, and the MCTC rugby team – all while keeping up with his engineering studies.

“Representing three rugby teams is an honour. It’s a huge challenge, but it’s something that I enjoy and do with pride, and something that gives me grace.”

Ali’s talent for rugby was recognised by the national side early on.

“I started at a very young age. My first appearance for the national team was at the age of 18, so I’ve been playing for Zambia for the past ten years – it’s been a wonderful experience. I’ve always played in the front row: I’m a prop, but sometimes I play hooker, sometimes loose head prop – but prop is my favourite position.”

It’s a spectator sport

“Here at the Leopard’s Cage we’ve been blessed to host about four international matches in the past two years – the first time that international matches have come to the town of Mufulira.”

Despite the defeat by Algeria two years in a row, Ali understands the value of exposure and experience.

“All in all, hosting international matches has been a great achievement for rugby, for the youths, for the club, and Mopani as well – the major sponsor of all rugby activity here at Mufulira Rugby Club.”

From 15s to 7s

“All in all, hosting international matches has been a great achievement for rugby, for the youths, for the club, and Mopani as well – the major sponsor of all rugby activity here at Mufulira Rugby Club.”

 “We’ve also had a fantastic opportunity to host international tournaments in the 7s department of rugby. We’ve had international teams coming in from South Africa, who competed, and we had a professional outfit from the Lions which – right now – is one of the best rugby clubs in the world, and we were privileged to host them. It was a fantastic tournament with all the local clubs participating. Mufulira itself had four teams: three men’s teams and one women’s team, which performed very well and got very good exposure. In 2018, we were blessed to have even more international teams participating right here at Mufulira, including a ladies Lions team which I think was a first for rugby in Zambia. This is a club that is trend setting, and it’s a good space to be in right now.”

Mufulira’s women’s team are on a winning streak

Twenty-year-old Natasha Musonda is Captain of the women’s rugby team, the Mufulira Leopardesses, which won virtually every game they played in 2018, including to their South African rivals.

“In all of last year’s league games we had the same team, who won the tournament for 2018. We experienced good memories and good times in South Africa. We won all four games and were the champions of the South African tournament.”

Natasha was motivated to start playing rugby five years ago when she noticed some of her peers excelling in the sport.

“The time I was chosen as Captain felt good, but the most important thing is to humble yourself as a leader. The thing that keeps my team together is unity and humility. That’s the reason we have been winning the games: because of team spirit and togetherness.”

Tomorrow’s Champions

At Mufulira Rugby Club, great emphasis is placed on training tomorrow’s rugby champions. Ali explains:

“In addition to all the rugby activity that’s happening here, we’ve got the Junior Leopards – that’s our junior rugby club. We’ve got Under-10s, Under-12s, Under-14s, Under-18s and Under-20s as well. You can currently see them training here [above]. They’ve got a big tournament coming up and we’re expecting that they’ll perform very well.”

Vision to become self-sustainable

Maambo Chooye, the operations manager at Mopani Copper Mines Plc’s Refinery, is the Club President for the Leopard’s Cage, and his main pre-occupation is to make the Cage self-sustaining.

“Mufulira Rugby Club’s vision is to become self-sustaining in the near future. This was started off by incorporating a company (Mufulira Rugby Club limited) in 2018 with various business proposals lined up.

Some of the businesses are sewing mining bags and general clothing as well as doing carpentry work that involves making benches and various furniture.

Additionally in the foreseeable future, we intend to start a brick-making business whose blocks will be supplied to the mines, including Mopani.

Our logo is also being patented for all clothing designs, thus generating some revenue. With these, and more business initiatives to come in due course, Mufulira Rugby Club is confident of becoming self-sustainable soon,” says Chooye.

See also: COSAFA returns to the Copperbelt