‘Special,’ says Siya Kolisi, when asked about Beast Mtawarira’s looming milestone and what it could mean for the South African rugby community as a whole. ‘We’ve been talking about it among ourselves since last year. This milestone is going to change a lot of mindsets. It’s going to show what people who come from underprivileged backgrounds can achieve when they believe in their dreams and never give up.’
Kolisi grew up in a township on the outskirts of Port Elizabeth. He knows about struggle and what it can mean for people from these communities – be they in the Eastern Cape or in Mtawarira’s native Zimbabwe – when one of their own rises to the top.
‘I looked up to Beast when I was a kid,’ says Kolisi, who has gone on to lead the Stormers and feature regularly in the national side. ‘He still inspires me today. We feed off it whenever he goes on a run, and every time we hear the crowd chanting “Beaassst!”
‘That happens at every stadium. That shows what people around the world think of him. Everybody hounds him for an autograph. Everybody recognises him, no matter where we are, because he’s a player who has been performing at an exceptionally high level for a long, long time.’
Mtawarira has already played 103 games for the Springboks. His 10-year run in the green and gold includes 99 Tests, two tour matches against the Barbarians, and two fixtures against the World XV.
That said, all eyes will be on the 32-year-old when he reaches the 100-Test milestone against England at Free State Stadium on Saturday – and becomes the first black African to do so.
‘Beast never set out to become the first black man to win 100 Test caps for the Boks,’ says Kolisi. ‘He set out to become the best player in his position and to play as many Tests as possible.
‘We shouldn’t view the achievement in terms of colour. We should rather see it and celebrate it as something that inspires people from all walks of life. Beast winning 100 Test caps is an important story, one that all people in South Africa, and even those from countries around the world, can appreciate.’
‘This milestone is bigger than one man,’ Mtawarira tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘It has been in the back of my mind for some time and is something I badly want to achieve.
‘I didn’t come from a privileged background. I can relate to kids in similar situations who don’t have a lot of resources at their disposal. My message to them is simple: never let your circumstances dictate your future. Don’t let anything stop you, whether you want to be the next player to win 100 caps for the Boks or the next big doctor or pilot. Don’t let anyone tell you it can’t be done.
‘It’s not really about Beast getting to 100 caps,’ the big man adds. ‘It’s broader than that. It’s about the next generation knowing they can achieve great things if they stick to their task.’
The Tendai Mtawarira who left Zimbabwe more than a decade ago in pursuit of an opportunity in Durban had more modest ambitions. There was a time when he couldn’t afford a bicycle, let alone a car. Bismarck du Plessis used to give the likes of Mtawarira and JP Pietersen a lift to and from training in his old VW beetle.
Back then, Mtawarira and Pietersen were packing down together in the second row. Mtawarira was trialled at lock, flank, and even at hooker before Sharks coach Dick Muir eventually convinced him to concentrate on loosehead prop.
‘I desperately wanted to make it at the Sharks Academy,’ Mtawarira says. ‘I was a hard worker and I was determined, but I never thought I would play one Test for the Boks, let alone 100. My biggest goal was to play Super Rugby for the Sharks.’
Under the guidance of Muir, and with the help of several battle-hardened front-rankers in the Sharks coaching and playing ranks, Mtawarira made progress in his new position.
‘They pushed him hard,’ says Gary Gold with a knowing chuckle. Gold worked closely with Mtawarira in his capacity as Bok forwards coach between 2008 and 2011, and again as Sharks director of rugby in 2015 and 2016.
‘It was a hard learning school. Dick deserves a lot of credit for getting Beast to make the move to prop. [Then Bok captain] John Smit was the father figure out on the field, while Bismarck and Jannie played the role of the older brothers constantly searching for new ways to toughen up the younger sibling.’
Since then, Mtawarira has gone on to break the South African record for the most Test appearances by a prop. What’s more, he and the Du Plessis brothers hold the South African record for the most Tests as a front-row combination.
‘Bismarck pushed me in every game we played together,’ Mtawarira says. ‘He was always challenging me to go beyond what I thought were my limits. He wouldn’t allow me to rest on my laurels after a good game.’
The decorated Du Plessis brothers are playing for Montpellier in France. Both tell SA Rugby magazine that the bond they share with Mtawarira transcends rugby.
‘Beast and I were more like brothers than teammates,’ says Bismarck. ‘When Jannie, Beast and I played together, it was a family affair. If one of us was slacking, the other two would let him have it. We brought out the best in one another.’
Jannie du Plessis moved from the Cheetahs to the Sharks in 2008. The 70-Test tighthead confirms that it was better to play with Mtawarira than against him, even in the early days of the loosehead’s career.
‘Rassie Erasmus was the Cheetahs coach then,’ he remembers. ‘Whenever we played the Sharks, we singled out this young guy who boasted a lot of power and speed. It was a case of “keep an eye on this guy or he will make a fool out of you”.
‘When I started to play with Beast, I became aware of the sound he made when he hit someone. Few looseheads, in fact very few players, can tackle in that manner. In the Test against England in 2008, we kicked on to wing Paul Sackey and he looked to counter-attack. He didn’t see Beast coming. I remember standing on the Twickenham pitch with wide eyes. The impact of that tackle was tremendous.
‘That became a recurring theme with Beast. Lions flyhalf Jaco van Schalkwyk tried to take him on in a Currie Cup game in 2008. It was a mistake made by many a backline player over the years. Beast lined Jaco up and proceeded to cut him in half. The referee reacted immediately by blowing his whistle. He couldn’t believe that such a vicious hit could be legal. The replays showed, however, that Beast had hit Jaco across the chest and stopped him dead.
‘We pushed each other as individuals. We were constantly searching for ways to improve as a unit,’ Jannie says when asked about that legendary front-row combination. ‘Bismarck, Beast and I shared a special bond. I always knew I could count on Beast in the heat of battle. He is my brother. If he called me right now and said he needed me, I would fly back to South Africa to help.’
No one can talk about Mtawarira’s career without talking about his scrummaging performance against the British & Irish Lions in 2009. He famously ended the career of veteran Phil Vickery in this series, and in doing so announced himself as a world-class loosehead comparable with legends such as Os du Randt.
‘I’ve been coaching for nearly 20 years. In all that time, I haven’t witnessed a bigger game-changing moment than when Beast destroyed Vickery in that first Test,’ says Gold.
‘He set the tone for us at the scrum and that went a long way towards winning the game. Vickery was subbed early in the second half. It was a massive win within a win, and we rode the momentum into the next match to clinch the series. I can’t remember who was named the official Man of the Series, but for me Beast was right up there.’
Six months later, Mtawarira was challenged like never before. In January 2010, the national assembly sports committee questioned the legality of fielding a Zimbabwean in the South African national side. He was dropped for the June Tests and there was even talk of him being deported. Fortunately, he managed to obtain South African citizenship and was back in the Bok set-up later that season.
It was around this time that Mtawarira began to suffer from heart palpitations. The situation deteriorated in November 2012 when he was rushed to a Dublin hospital on the eve of a Test against Ireland and then ruled out for the remainder of the three-Test tour.
Later, he underwent a procedure that saw an electric current passing through his heart to correct the arrhythmia. When he was given the all-clear to resume his athletic pursuits, teammates took to calling him ‘Iron Man’ after the comic-book character who sports an electromagnet in his chest.
‘It was a scary time, not only for him, but also for his friends and family,’ says former Sharks and Bok teammate Odwa Ndungane. ‘I look back at it now and it amazes me to think he has gone even further with his rugby career since making a full recovery.’
Mtawarira feels it was an unexpected yet important step in his rugby journey.
‘I don’t think I would be where I am today if I hadn’t gone through all of that. I’m a Christian, so I viewed those challenges in a positive way. I like to believe there was more to it, that I got a second chance. I believed I would come through that procedure and that I would continue to play rugby. There was never a doubt, never a chance I was going to retire. I suppose that goes to show what the power of the mind can do.’
Six years later, Mtawarira is on the verge of making history. So how is he feeling before the big day?
‘My family is excited, perhaps a little too excited,’ he says, before breaking into a laugh like rolling thunder. ‘My parents have flown in from Harare to watch me over the course of my career. They keep talking about the 100-Test milestone.
‘My wife, Kuziva, has been at my side every step of this journey. She has nursed my wounds, the physical and the psychological ones, after the bad games. I’m grateful for that. I’ve had a tough time keeping her and my children [daughter Talumba and son Wangu] calm over the past few months. I’m having a hard time explaining that it is something that still has to happen. I still have to earn the chance to play in two more games this June.’
A continent separates the Du Plessis brothers and their adopted sibling. It won’t be enough, however, to stop Bismarck and Jannie from being on hand when Mtawarira takes the field for the 100th time.
‘I don’t think there will be a prouder person in the stadium than myself,’ says Bismarck. ‘I’ve played a part in his journey and he is my brother. It’s going to be an emotional moment when he runs out for that milestone.
‘Beast will go down in history as a Bok who gave people hope, a Bok who never backed down from any challenge. He had to fight for this chance. He went through phases in his career where people, from sports writers to fans to coaches, said he wasn’t good enough. It made me mad to see that, because I know the quality of the man. Time and again, he’s hit back and shown everyone what a big heart he has,’ Bismarck adds.
The milestone is bigger than one man, as Kolisi and Mtawarira have said. Ndungane, a long-time friend and one of the most-capped Super Rugby players of all time, believes future generations will remember this milestone as the breaking of a barrier.
‘It’s a big moment for him and the rugby community as a whole. We are on the verge of witnessing the first black African centurion in Springbok history. That shows how far this country has come. It also shows that there is hope for people from all walks of life.’
True to form, Mtawarira is working hard to ensure he and his family enjoy a prosperous future. Former Bok flank Wahl Bartmann, who is now the CEO of Fidelity Security Services, has been mentoring Mtawarira on all things business, while the prop is also involved in Beast Promotions, a marketing and advertising company.
‘I’m not done with rugby just yet, though,’ he says. ‘I’d love to win a Super Rugby title with the Sharks. I’ve come close a couple of times [in 2007 and 2012].
‘The 2019 World Cup is another massive goal of mine. Rassie visited the teams earlier this year and outlined his plans for this season. I believe he will take the Boks in the right direction. I will work harder than ever before to ensure I am there in 2019.’
Gold feels the Boks could use a player of Mtawarira’s experience and ability in Japan next year.
‘Victor Matfield was still in terrific shape at the age of 36. Beast [who will be 34 at the 2019 World Cup] is in the same category of athlete. He doesn’t drink and he lives a healthy lifestyle. So the answer to that question is yes; in terms of his body he certainly has what it takes to play through to the next World Cup.
‘He is approaching the twilight of his career, but he’s lost none of his edge,’ adds Gold. ‘The longer you’re around, the more knowledgeable and wily you become with regard to the scrum. He can be an asset to the Boks. I suppose the only real issue is managing him well over the next 18 months. The coaches at the Sharks and Rassie at the Boks will need to get that right.’
Indeed, the powers that be would do well to handle Mtawarira with care. He is, after all, a national treasure.
– This article first appeared in the June 2018 issue of SA Rugby magazine