Latest News Editor's Choice

News / National

Zimbabwean-born Irish rugby star turned wine expert

by Staff reporter
14 Jun 2020 at 10:06hrs | Views
Dave Curtis took the road less travelled on his journey from Zimbabwe to an Ireland jersey in the early 1990s and the return trip has been just as interesting and rewarding.

The sun is shining and the skies are blue as Curtis (55) takes the Irish Examiner on a virtual tour of the Stable Winery he has built from scratch in the Borrowdale suburb of Harare.

The soil in this part of southern Africa is not conducive to wine-drinking grapes, but the former London Irish and Connacht centre has instead grown a solid business in the city of his birth, importing wines and showcasing them on the grounds of the four-acre former riding school he and wife Andrea established in 2004.

It would be easy to take this idyllic scene at face value, bask in the rays and enjoy an imaginary sip of crisp, chilled white amid the roses on the terrace.

To imagine a member of a famous Exiles backline also featuring Rob Saunders, Jim Staples and Simon Geoghegan, all of whom played for Ireland at the 1991 World Cup, seamlessly transitioning from a stellar amateur sporting career - he also represented Oxford University in first-class cricket - into an equally successful business career.

Yet that would not scratch the surface of the toil that went into creating a sustainable enterprise in the midst of a chaotic political landscape and an economy on its knees thanks to hyperinflation and corruption.

Just the idea of taking on such a project was something of a gamble for a man whose background was as a civil engineer and whose career started with Ray O'Rourke in London and took him back to Zimbabwe in 1994 and onto civil-war reconstruction in neighbouring Mozambique with another Irish construction firm, John Sisk & Sons.

"From civil engineering to wine was a bit of a change," Curtis said with a chuckle. "I've been fortunate. It's been a niche market that we've found and it's worked for us during the troubled times Zimbabwe's been through.

"Wine importing has been our core business and I've still been doing a bit of house-building on the side, small construction stuff.

"It's been tough. We've been through lots of turmoil in Zimbabwe in the last 20 years. We had all the land invasions of white-owned- farms in 2000-2002 and that period was not a pleasant time and since then we've been through hyperinflation, which was a very interesting time to operate and the economy has never really recovered here, it's at rock-bottom and no better right now.

"This whole coronavirus thing has been a big problem here for tourism. A lot of Zimbabwe's revenue comes via foreign currency through tourism to our national parks and Victoria Falls and that has gone to zero with the whole corona issue.

"It's a big blow for the whole country and even for our business, it's probably taken 50 or 60% of our turnover away, just like that. Tourism impacts on restaurants and so on and that impacts on the winery operators so we're going to have to rethink going forward, as everyone is."

The son of Ireland wing Arthur Curtis, capped three times in the 1950 Five Nations before emigrating to what was then Rhodesia that year, Curtis's rugby career had taken off when he was recruited by London Irish while spending a year at Oxford University having graduated from the University of Cape Town.

Winning promotion in his first season with the Exiles brought him to the attention of Connacht coaching duo George Hook and Eddie O'Sullivan and a try at Thomond Park against Munster on his debut for the Westerners set in train a path to the Ireland set-up and 13 Test caps, one of which was a start in that agonising 1991 World Cup quarter-final loss to Australia at Lansdowne Road.

"I finished playing my Irish games in 92 and then spent a couple of years in the UK with a company called Ray O'Rourke, a big Irish building contractor. I was a civil engineer originally and was playing with London Irish for a couple of years until we left the UK at the end of 94 and came back to Zimbabwe.

"We had a son (Simon, now working in finance in Durban) by that stage and when we left the second-born (Annabel), she was six months old."

With Simon (27), in Durban and his two youngest sons Angus (22), and Graham (20), both in the Ulster Academy, Curtis senior was pleased when his daughter Annabel (25), a qualified osteopath, returned to Zimbabwe from the UK having studied at Swansea University and has built Stable Health, a medical facility next door to the Winery in which she and eight other practitioners work.

The Curtises try and visit Ireland as regularly as possible - "I miss the Guinness!" - to see their boys play and it gives Dave the opportunity to catch up with old team-mates.

Three generations of Curtis family have pulled on the green jersey and the rugby genes are still running strong.

Arthur Curtis represented Ireland on the wing three times in 1950 before emigrating to what was then Rhodesia. Son David followed in his footsteps via London Irish and Connacht to become Ireland's centre alongside Brendan Mullin at the 1991 World Cup, returning to Zimbabwe three years later.

Two of his four children have followed him into rugby, with fly-half/centre Angus (22), a senior pro with Ulster making his Champions Cup debut off the bench in the pool win at Bath last November, and scrum-half Graham (20) in the Ulster academy.

Both represented Ireland U19s, Angus was in the 2017 World U20 Championship squad while Graham has now earned Ireland Sevens honours at the Vancouver and Los Angeles tournaments.

Source - Irish Examiner

Get latest news by email: