Beast Mtawarira could not have asked for a better ending to his storied career and is now giving back to the game, writes JON CARDINELLI in the latest SA Rugby magazine.
Mtawarira has had time to reflect on the turbulent final years of his stellar career. From the outside, it may seem like this chapter unfolded without drama – as the veteran prop won his 100th Test cap in 2018 and then added to his legacy with Rugby Championship and World Cup-winners’ medals in 2019. But, as the Beast tells SA Rugby magazine, there was a time when he doubted himself and feared his journey would end with a whimper rather than a roar.
‘I invested so much into playing that 100th Test,’ he says. Indeed, the lead-up to that game against England in Bloemfontein – the second of the three-Test series – was dominated by tributes to the living legend, the first black African centurion.
‘I felt I did well in that series. Afterwards, however, I lost a bit of form and was dropped to the bench. It was tough. I started to wonder if this is how I wanted to end it all. My wife could see what a toll everything was taking on me. We had a lot of discussions about it. I started to think about retiring at the end of the 2018 season.
‘It’s funny how life works, though,’ he says before breaking into a booming laugh. ‘I had a long chat to Rassie Erasmus about it. Then I got injured in the final Rugby Championship game against the All Blacks in Pretoria. I was out for a while and I used that time to assess my options. Looking back, I’m glad I had that chance to reflect. I’ve always wanted to win the World Cup [after falling short of the goal at the 2011 and 2015 tournaments]. The opportunity to push for the game’s ultimate prize is what gave me a new lease on life.’
Mtawarira has long been a talisman within the national set-up, especially among the forwards. Captain Siya Kolisi and hardman Eben Etzebeth often speak about the veteran’s contributions with reverence. Hooker Bongi Mbonambi told SA Rugby magazine this year that Mtawarira was the set-piece catalyst in last year’s World Cup final.
The Boks destroyed the England scrum in the opening quarter. The importance of that performance was highlighted after each successful set piece when the backline players rushed over to slap Mtawarira and the other forwards on the back.
‘That was my life’s work,’ Mtwaraira says, nearly six months after the event. The big man made a name for himself when he scrummed Phil Vickery into submission in the 2009 British & Irish Lions series. It’s fair to say he lived up to his fearsome reputation – and then some – in his final Test appearance 10 years later.
‘It all came together in that final. I could not have asked for a better end to my career. All the hard work I’d put into my game over the years … it was all worth it. I knew the minute that game ended that it was my last. My heart was full.’
Mtawarira travelled to the US after the tournament to take a player-mentor role with local club Old Glory. When we catch up, he reveals that he only just managed to return to South Africa before the nationwide lockdown.
While in isolation, Mtawarira and his family had the chance to rewatch the 2019 World Cup final, which was – along with other classic matches – shown in lieu of any live sport.
‘That squad was such a tight unit. Most people won’t understand what we went through over the past few years. Players like me were there with the Boks during the worst years in 2016 and 2017 when the results and performances were poor. There were things going on behind the scenes that nobody will ever know about. Then Rassie came back and we started to build a new team. It wasn’t easy and there were some growing pains, but it made us stronger.
‘When I watched that final in Yokohama, all the emotions came flooding back. Even my wife was crying. She knows what we went through.’
Mtawarira says his short-term stint in the US was not so much about playing as giving back to the next generation and helping a developing rugby nation.
‘The owners of Old Glory got in touch through an old schoolmate of mine from Zimbabwe, who is involved in club rugby over there in the States. They contacted me in 2019 to see if I was interested. I had my mind on other things at that stage, of course, with the World Cup right around the corner. I was just trying to get into the best possible shape before travelling to Japan.
‘Some players chase the big pay cheque at an overseas club after finishing their international careers. I had other reasons for accepting the chance to work in the MLR. I wanted to do something meaningful, and I saw the move to Old Glory as a chance to mentor younger players and help a semi-professional sport in the US gain more recognition.
‘I’d travelled to the States many times before with my wife. I couldn’t wait to go back. From a sport point of view, I saw what David Beckham had done for soccer there during the latter stages of his career. I was hoping to do the same for rugby. I wanted to leave a legacy. Unfortunately, my stay was cut short.’
A lifelong fan of the NBA, Mtawarira admits that he left the US with some regrets. ‘I was so close to meeting LeBron James! I got in touch with a guy who was going to get me tickets to the NBA playoffs. The basketball season was cancelled so that dream had to be put on hold. I don’t know if I will go back to the States. The MLR season has been scrapped and I was only contracted for one year. They want me to come back in 2021 but I don’t know if I have another season in me.’
Perhaps when rugby does get the green light to resume, it’s the South African game that will benefit from Mtawarira’s knowledge and expertise.
‘I’d love to work with younger players on this side,’ he says. ‘I see it as my duty as a retired player. I’d love to impart what I’ve learned and help the guys who want to make a career out of playing in the front row.’
*This feature appeared in the latest issue of SA Rugby magazine, now on sale.
NEW BATTLE FOR No 1
Springbok great Beast Mtawarira wasn’t afraid to single out Ox Nche when asked about the state of South Africa’s front-row stocks and the recent performances in the Super Rugby tournament.
Nche has been on the national radar for some time. The athletic prop was impressive with his ball-carrying and handling contributions for South Africa A against the French Barbarians in 2017 and he made his Test debut against Wales in Washington DC a year later.
That Test remains Nche’s only appearance for Rassie Erasmus’ Springboks. Given Mtawarira’s retirement after the 2019 World Cup, however, there’s an opportunity to nail down a place in the squad.
‘There are a lot of players putting their hands up. One who has caught my eye is the guy who’s replaced me at the Sharks,’ says Mtawarira, who spent his entire career with the Durban-based franchise.
‘Ox has done a great job since coming in from the Cheetahs. I love the way he goes about his game. To be honest, I haven’t seen the Sharks play so well in ages. It’s just a shame that the season was cut short, as they really seemed to have struck a great balance. ‘
The Boks went to the 2019 World Cup with two specialist loosehead props in Mtawarira and Steven Kitshoff. Swing props such as Trevor Nyakane and Thomas du Toit – who has played a lot at No 3 this year – also have the ability to slot in at No 1.
Lizo Gqoboka made his Test debut in the 2019 Rugby Championship and would have travelled to the World Cup if Mtawarira or Kitshoff broke down with a serious injury. Now that Mtawarira has retired, Gqoboka, like Nche, will be looking to establish himself as a regular member of the match-day 23.
Main photo: Steve Haag Sports/Hollywoodbets