Mtawarira made his Springbok debut against Wales only 12 months ago and among his many talents, no one mentioned his prowess in the set-piece. His rise in the international game has been nothing less than extraordinary.
At 23 he is very young to be selected as a Test loosehead prop and when it is remembered that he only played his first game in the position two years ago, yesterday’s feat of wrecking the Lions scrum was beyond belief. He drove the former England captain and World Cup winner Phil Vickery back at every scrum, forcing him to bore inwards and concede the penalties that ultimately destroyed the Lions’ challenge.
Before yesterday, it was said that Mtawarira was a decent but still developing scrummager, that his greatness as a young prop lay in his work away from the set pieces. He is a very good tackler and has an excellent running game. In two years of senior rugby he has won the hearts of the South African rugby public and whenever he plays, “Beast, Beast” echoes around the ground and reflect an iconic status.
Though he is Zimbabwean, Mtawarira is testimony to the transformation that has been slowly taking place in South African rugby, where the black player is becoming an integral part of Springbok teams,present by right rather than by quota. Not only is Mtawarira the first name on the teamsheet (the Springboks announce their team from one through 15), he is also close to the team’s most popular player.
We met days before yesterday’s Test at the Beverly Hills hotel, north of Durban. Mtawarira came with his fiancee Kuziva to tell the fairytale story of his startling rise to rugby fame. It began in Harare, Zimbabwe,where his dad worked as a credit manager at a big financial institution and Tendai, the second-born son, was an unusually troublesome child. He laughs with embarrassment at the memory. “They said I was a bully and — you are not going to believe this — I was expelled from pre-school. My mother, who is a very devoted Christian, would tell me that I was put on earth for a greater purpose but at that time I wasn’t really listening.
“I went to Sunday School but didn’t have a clue why I was there. My mother would go to my school when I got in trouble but from 10 to 16, things weren’t good.”
His older brother Brian was the key influence in the change that would take place. Tendai looked up to his brother, who excelled at sport and studies, and when Brian started to talk about being a more responsible person, Tendai was listening. His older brother convinced him he could be good at maths and began to teach him, because Brian had always found maths child’s play. And Tendai would get an A in maths in his A-levels.
Other things changed. The spiritual seeds sown by his mum, Bertha, began to grow and at 16, Tendai joined a Christian society. At 17, he earned a rugby scholarship to Peterhouse College, the prestigious school in Zimbabwe. At 18, he was on a school rugby tour to Durban and playing against one of the local schools when Barry Angus, at the time a conditioning coach with the local Sharks team, saw him play.
“Barry said there would be a place for me at the Sharks academy if I wanted it. I was a Sharks supporter, I’d seen them many times on television and it was a dream for me to have the opportunity to play rugby for them. I decided I would do a BComm at university in Cape Town and play at the Sharks academy.”
Mtawarira describes his Zimbabwean background as middle class, but that is relative. The flight from Harare to begin his life in Durban would have taken an hour and 40 minutes but his parents couldn’t afford the fare and the teenager set off on a bus, south from Harare, across the Limpopo River, through the border crossing at Beit Bridge and then on towards Durban. He was on the bus for 36 hours. “I didn’t mind that journey one bit. I was excited about playing for the Sharks and never slept for a minute.”
At the time, Mtawarira played just one position, No 8, and such was his ability to terrorise opponents with his running game that he was ever known as “Beast”. Even his dad, Felix, called him nothing else. He played for a year at the Sharks academy, proving himself an able and hardworking No 8. His dream was to be No 8 on the Sharks Super-14 side but that ended on an afternoon in May 2006 when Dick Muir, then coach to the Sharks and now assistant coach to the Springboks, called him to one side.
“Beast,” he said, “I don’t believe you’re going to make it at No 8 but with your strength, your size and your speed, I am sure you could make it at loosehead prop.” Mtawarira was distraught. When you dream of playing No 8 and are told your future is in the front row, it is like the pianist being told to join the team who has to push the piano into position.
“I was No 8 on the Sharks under-21 side, it was so tough to be told I wouldn’t make it at No 8. But I know Dick is a great guy and he really believed I could be a brilliant prop. I spoke to those people closest to me. My friend, the former Sharks player Jeremy Thompson, told me to see it as an opportunity, and at my church I spoke with Thabo Mamojele, and told him I was struggling to accept Dick’s opinion.
“Thabo said, ‘Tendai, you must be excited about this. It’s the biggest opportunity of your career. You can’t be down about this’. The next morning I called Dick Muir and I said, ‘Coach, I’m ready, I’m going to work harder at this change than I’ve ever worked in my life. I’m going to make it work’.”
There had to be another twist, of course. Without much by way of preparation, Mtawarira played his first game at loosehead prop for College Rovers’ second XV. Not knowing how to position his body for that first point of contact, he suffered a knee injury that would keep him out of the game for three months. They said he would be back running after eight weeks but when he tried, he couldn’t do it.
“It was so frustrating, as it just wouldn’t heal. I couldn’t even jog after 10 weeks. Then, out of faith, I went to my church and prayed about it. My brothers and sisters at Glenridge Church came and laid their hands on me and they prayed with me. I couldn’t run before going to the church, I could run when I came out. It was an amazing moment in my Christian journey.”
Rugby men will find the next part of the journey just as incredible. “This was November 2006, Dick included me in the team’s training squad even though I’m this new prop. They’re thinking I could play for the Sharks in two or three years. But it was unbelievable, I felt good at prop from the first day, I worked extra hard, the scrum coaches stayed back after training to help me and I went to the gym every chance I got.
“I really had to work on my technique, how to make the hit and then hold my own after the hit, and the thing that was hardest was getting my binding right. But it came to me really quickly and three months later I was playing for the Sharks and actually played Super-14 in 2007.”
Last year, less than two years after converting from the back row, Mtawarira became the Springboks’ loosehead prop.
South African rugby fans have hailed the achievement, and so began the cult of the Beast. He finds it slightly embarrassing, but at the same time inspiring, and even though Kuziva says she would prefer it if he was called Tendai, he feels he can never lose his nickname.
But his popularity isn’t simply to do with his rugby, because it is obvious from the way he plays that behind the powerful scrummaging, the runs and the tackles, there is a human being with hardly a bad bone in his body. When the referee admonishes the Springbok forwards, he is the one nodding approval and agreeing with the official. A South African newspaper asked him to pose with an attractive female surfer in Durban, a sexy beach shot that might have run under the caption, “Beauty and the Beast”. As it was to advertise a good cause, he said he would prefer if he could do it with a child as it would be insulting to his girlfriend to be pictured with the surfer.
I ask him how he and Kuziva met. He laughs, uproariously. “That’s some story,” he says. “My mum was praying for my future life at her church in Harare and she saw Kuziva, who is a member of the same church. My mother felt in her heart this was my wife-to-be and when she introduced us, I knew from the first second, this was my wife-to-be. Basically, it was the Lord’s mighty hand directing our lives.”
RACE AND THE SPRINGBOKS
1981 Errol Tobias is the first non-white to play for the Springboks and wins six caps
1992 The Boks are readmitted to the international fold, though no black players are selected for the first game back
1995 South Africa win the World Cup on home soil. Chester Williams, the black wing, later says descriptions of unity were a lie and that he was racially abused by teammate James Small
1997 Coach Andre Markgraaff is forced to resign after a tape of him denouncing politicians and rugby officials as ‘f****** kaffirs’ is aired
1999 Racial quotas for teams in the Currie Cup are introduced in an effort to bring through more black players
2007 South Africa win the World Cup, with two black players, Bryan Habana and JP Pietersen, in the team. Soon after, the quota system is ended and Pieter de Villiers becomes the first black coach of the Springboks The Times (UK)