Having retired from the international rugby, legendary Bok prop Beast Mtawarira aims to give back to the game, writes MIKE GREENAWAY.
It is perhaps fitting that it was former Springbok and Sharks captain John Smit who best summed up the career of the Tendai ‘Beast’ Mtawarira.
Smit was interviewing the Beast not long after the final whistle at Yokohama and said, with an arm around the sweaty prop: ‘Beastie, I had the privilege of playing many a game with you and I can honestly say that when you get angry, or something or someone flicks your switch, you’re unstoppable … there isn’t a rugby player I have played against who could contain you!’
Smit then commended Mtawarira for his utter commitment to staying in the monstrous physical shape that underpinned his career longevity — over 11 years, the Beast played a whopping 117 Tests, with only Victor Matfield and Bryan Habana playing more.
Remarkably, Beast played an average of almost 11 Tests a year (typically, the Boks play 14 Tests a year) and that average would have been higher if you take into account that he did not play for the Boks in 2010, the year the government decided out of the blue that he wasn’t eligible for South Africa until he became a citizen.
On this subject, there was an interesting comment from former SA Rugby president Regan Hoskins who at that time fought Beast’s case tooth and nail with the sports ministry.
Hoskins, usually a cool head, was incensed that Beast, who was in South Africa from Zimbabwe on a work permit, was suddenly being victimised when South African sport has a long history of selecting relocated Zimbabweans for national teams (Gary Teichmann, Bob Skinstad, Adrian Garvey, Brian Mujati, Tonderai Chavhanga et al).
Hoskins heatedly pointed out that unlike most Springboks, Tendai Mtawaria had come to South Africa virtually penniless, friendless and with no family support whatsoever. Hoskins commented that Beast was a ‘self-made man who pulled himself to the top by his bootstraps through sheer determination and hunger’.
That bloody-mindedness began when he was a schoolboy in Harare. He knew that to fulfil his dream of being a rugby star he had to go to the best rugby school in his country, Peterhouse, but his family could not afford the fees. One day he bunked school, caught a bus to Peterhouse (an hour outside Harare) and gingerly asked for an interview with the rector, who he then (successfully) begged for a scholarship.
When Peterhouse toured South Africa a few years later, he was spotted by the Sharks Academy and offered a bursary, and we pretty much know the rest of Mtawaria remarkable story and what sublime service he gave to the Sharks and the green and gold.
How will we best remember the man? Obviously for the rumbustious roars from the crowd as he charged forward with ball tucked under his arm; certainly for his stirring delivery of the national anthem; definitely for his trademark trick of hoisting a lock high up into the air with his arms straightened above his head, holding the lock there for a few seconds until the ball had been caught; and notably for his ruthless annihilation of opposition props that caught him on a bad day.
An obvious standout in this regard was his merciless destruction of British & Irish Lions tighthead prop Phil Vickery at Kings Park to provide the impetus towards a famous Springbok win in 2009. The then Bok forwards coach, Gary Gold, described it as the most complete domination of a tighthead prop at international level he had ever seen.
Since then Mtawaria has savaged opponents on occasions but it would take 10 years for him to trump his Vickery cameo, with another Englishman, Dan Cole, the victim … and on the biggest stage of all, the World Cup final in Yokohama.
Mtawarira’s forwards coach, Matthew Proudfoot, reckons his scrumming performance in the final was his finest hour.
‘I knew we would get something special from him when he came to me on the Monday and said [with frustration] “What can I work on?!” He was so hungry for the game, as he has consistently been over his 116-cap career,’ Proudfoot said. ‘He said he wanted to end his career on a high note and in the end I don’t think he could have made a prouder statement on the field. He was absolutely exceptional.’
The emotion the 34-year-old exhibited during the national anthem was a portent of the ordeal to come for the English scrum. His teammates next to him in the anthems knew when the Beast was ready to erupt, as former captain Jean de Villiers testifies.
‘Jannie and Bismarck du Plessis played a lot of rugby with Beast and they always spoke about “The Shake” before the game,’ De Villiers says. ‘When you are standing there, singing the anthem, and you can feel Beast is shaking, you know he’s ready.’
As brutal as Beast could be on the field, De Villiers adds that he is the archetypal gentle giant off it.
‘He is the Beast between the white lines but away from the game he’s just the most gentle guy and a fantastic person, a great ambassador for the country and an awesome player.’
At the Sharks, Mtawarira’s incredible service to the black and white – his career began and ended in Durban – saw the union honouring him by putting his Super Rugby number on their away jerseys for the 2019 season, to commemorate him breaking the SA record for Super Rugby caps.
The Sharks chief executive officer, Eduard Coetzee, explains: ‘Beast’s contribution to the Sharks cannot only be limited to the field of play. He has been a role model and mentor for numerous young props. So many players who have come through our system have learned so much from him, as a player and a human being.’
Yes the Beast will be remembered for all the above, but also for the following …
In the run-up to his 100th Test match in 2018, he started a project called 100 Reasons to Dream. It was to try to make a lasting contribution from a significant moment in his career, his 100th cap for the Springboks.
The idea was to give away rugby boots to deserving people and Asics came on board as a sponsor.
At the time, he said: ‘I have never forgotten the first time I was given a pair of boots when I was at school, and that was the stimulus. I started identifying young kids at schools who didn’t have boots, but were inspired to play the game. Then I heard about a ladies rugby team in the Eastern Cape and gave boots to them and at the Cape Town Sevens last year I was able to give boots to the Zimbabwe Sevens team.
‘Now I plan to start a rugby academy in Zimbabwe.
‘I came from little … I must give back.’
The Beast’s bottom line
Tests played: 117
Tests won: 74
Tests lost: 38
Tests drawn: 5
Tests started: 102
Tests as a substitute: 15
Test debut: vs Wales in Pretoria, June 14 2008
Last Test: vs England in Yokohama, November 2 2019
Test points: 10 (2 tries)
Yellow cards: 2 (vs England at Twickenham in 2008 – to this day Beast swears the ref got the wrong guy offside at a ruck; vs Japan in Tokyo at the 2019 World Cup)
Beast is the joint-14th most capped international forward of all time and the fifth-most capped prop ever
1 Rugby World Cup
1 Rugby Championship
1 British & Irish Lions series win
3 Currie Cup titles with the Sharks
159 Super Rugby caps
37 Currie Cup caps