South African rugby will witness another historic first if Beast Mtawarira wins his 100th Test cap this Saturday, writes JON CARDINELLI in Bloemfontein.
Ellis Park erupted when Siya Kolisi led the Springboks onto the field this past Saturday. Kolisi became the first black African to captain the Boks in a Test. The significance of the milestone wasn’t lost on a multiracial South African crowd.
Kolisi was one of six black Africans in the starting XV. A team more reflective of the country’s demographics who went on to beat England 42-39 and take a 1-0 lead in the three-match series.
Mtawarira earned his 99th Test cap in that important win for South African rugby. Fitness-permitting, the iconic Bok No 1 will hit the 100-mark at the Free State Stadium this Saturday.
Mtawarira will become the sixth Bok – after Percy Montgomery, John Smit, Victor Matfield, Jean de Villiers and Bryan Habana – to reach the milestone.
There’s an even greater achievement in the offing, though. Come Saturday, Mtawarira will become the first black African to play 100 Tests.
In a recent interview with SA Rugby magazine, Mtawarira spoke about the milestone in a broader sense. He is well aware of what the achievement could mean to black Africans in particular.
Mtawarira has been a loved and respected member of the Sharks and Bok squads for more than a decade. Indeed, it wasn’t hard to get teammates like Kolisi, Bismarck and Jannie du Plessis, Odwa Ndungane and former mentor Gary Gold to speak about the big prop’s contributions for the latest edition of SA Rugby magazine.
The consensus is that the man is a giant in every sense of the word.
‘This milestone is going to change a lot of mindsets,’ said Kolisi. ‘It’s going to show what can be achieved by people who come from a poor background, and what can be achieved if they never give up.
‘There’s another aspect to this too, which I think people might be missing. Beast was willing to make such a big change from loose forward to prop [in his early years]. He put in a lot of work, and is now on the verge of his 100th Test.
‘Hopefully, other people, some who come from similar backgrounds, will see what Beast has achieved and believe that they can do the same.’
Mtawarira is already the most capped Bok prop of all time. He also shares a record with the Du Plessis brothers for the most starts as a Bok front-row combination.
‘The opportunities this game can give you are amazing. I would never have guessed that I would have played alongside a Zimbabwean for so many years,’ said Jannie du Plessis.
‘I always knew that I could count on him in the heat of battle. Bismarck, Beast and I shared a special bond, and to be honest, Beast is like another brother to me.’
There have been times over the past 10 years when the prop’s contributions and value to the team have been questioned. Bismarck du Plessis believes that Mtawarira still doesn’t get the credit he deserves.
‘Beast will go down in history as a Bok who gave people hope, a Bok who never backed down from any challenge,’ the veteran South African hooker said. ‘He’s had to fight for this chance. He’s gone through phases in his career when people, from sport writers to coaches, were saying that he wasn’t good enough.
‘Time and again, he’s shown what a big heart he has.’
Gold, who worked with Mtawarira during the player’s first Test season in 2008 and later at the Sharks, believes that the prop has already left an indelible mark on the game.
‘I don’t think there is a question of Beast being the finished article,’ said Gold. ‘He’s been comfortably the best loosehead in the world for some time now.
‘He gives you so much more than a strong option at scrum-time. I remember the image seen around the world a few years back when he held Anton Bresler up after the Sharks lock had fallen back at a kickoff. That shows his power.
‘His mobility and speed for a front-row forward is remarkable. He puts in the big hits, and you don’t see too many players catching him flat-footed. He ticks all the boxes. He’s the full package.’
According to his close friends, Mtawarira has managed to stay humble despite his success.
‘Rugby can test you and change you in many ways,’ said Odwa Ndungane. ‘Beast still has that hunger that defined him as a youngster. He still has that belief in himself and he still works as hard as he did when he was trying to force his way into the Sharks Currie Cup side.’
Kolisi made history last Saturday, and the Boks claimed their first win on Rassie Erasmus’ watch.
Another major milestone looms in Bloemfontein this Saturday, however, with the Beast set to shatter one more ceiling.
Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images