Quintin van Jaarsveld
The rich legacy of the British and Irish Lions stoked legendary loosehead prop Tendai Mtawarira’s fire in his star-making meeting with the Home Nations’ elite in Durban in 2009.
This was one of the revelations of the Springbok and Sharks icon’s wide-ranging and highly entertaining conversation with historian Dr. Dean Allen as part of a weekly video series raising funds for the Chris Burger Petro Jackson Players’ Fund on Thursday evening.
Affectionately known as “Beast”, a nickname given to him by his childhood friends, Mtawarira’s a true servant of South African rugby, with a career spanning 13 years of provincial rugby and 11 seasons in the international arena.
The Harare-born brute became the most-capped Springbok prop in history (117 Tests), the most-capped South African Super Rugby player of all-time (159 appearances) as well as one of the most universally beloved and respected players to grace the game.
The raw emotion with which he played, his controlled aggression, humility, skill and work ethic resonated with all rugby lovers, irrespective of their allegiances, and made him a larger-than-life figure that earned the adulation of fans worldwide.
From Durban to Auckland, Sydney to Buenos Aires, London to Cardiff, Dublin to Edinburgh, Paris to Tokyo and everywhere in between, fans bellowed out “Beeeeast” whenever the behemoth set off on one of his trademark rampaging runs
As mobile as he was powerful, Mtawarira was like a shark smelling blood in the water. The 1.83m, 115kg predatory prop feasted on ball-carriers with bone-crunching hits and smashed into rucks with terminal velocity.
When push came to shove, the loose forward-cum-front-rower developed into a master of the dark art of scrummaging.
Not one to rely on his God-given power, Mtawarira meticulously honed his technique and evolved into one of the very best as a result – a boogeyman that tormented even the toughest of tightheads.
He became a scrummaging artist, one whose gallery included the famous emasculation of British and Irish Lions ace Phil Vickery, with Kings Park as the backdrop.
That piece of art, in the opening Test of the series, was among the most legendary of his career, both beautiful and brutal, the stuff of dreams and nightmares.
Even though he had played 10 Tests before the series, it was his starring role in South Africa’s 26-21 win at the Shark Tank that skyrocketed his career while effectively ending England veteran Vickery’s.
Ahead of the British and Irish Lions’ much-anticipated return to South Africa next year, eHowzit asked Mtawarira to reflect on facing the all-star outfit and that legendary performance.
“Playing against the Lions is probably the next best thing to playing in a World Cup. It’s such a big occasion and such a huge honour to be a part of,” he said.
“At the time when I got picked, I was really excited to contribute to the success of the team. I was quite young; I was 22 and I wanted to make my mark in world rugby.
“I’m sorry to Phil Vickery, but I had no choice,” added Mtawarira, a gentle giant off the field.
The Springboks clinched the series in an all-time classic at Loftus Versfeld the following week, Morné Steyn slotting a 52m penalty at the death to earn a dramatic 28-25 win before the tourists won the third and final Test 28-9 at Ellis Park.
After a banner 2009 season, which included a third Tri-Nations title, the Springboks’ fortunes changed. At its lowest point, during the disastrous Allister Coetzee era, Mtawarira revealed he thought of calling it quits.
“If you look back at 2016 and 2017, they were probably recorded as the worst years of Springbok rugby. We were losing to teams like Italy and Argentina…it was the lowest of all lows,” said the 34-year-old.
“I was one of the few players from the previous generation to be present, guys like Victor Matfield had left and Bryan Habana was also winding down. I was the last member of that group and I just felt that this isn’t what I’m used to.
“The Springbok brand stands for excellence and it was unacceptable for us to be performing this way. I remember actually contemplating retiring because it [our form] was just not part of who I am.
“To come back and see fans who support the Boks have to endure such terrible losses [was heart-breaking] but going through all that pain as a squad brought us together.”
Mtawarira spoke in-depth about how Rassie Erasmus was able to turn things around when he replaced the axed Coetzee as Springbok coach in 2018.
“When Rassie came in, he came in with a plan. He was very honest; he told us, ‘Guys, this is where we are in world rugby and this is the way we’re going to fix it.’
“He pointed out that there were a lot of things wrong with South African rugby and that people aren’t working together to contribute to the ultimate success of the Springboks.
“He went into detail about everything and went to work on fixing transformation. He was willing to talk about elephants in the room, things that other coaches – I can tell you for a fact – didn’t want to talk about.
“They ran away from it, not realising that you take the power away from those issues by talking about them, and Rassie did that with the team.
“From a playing point of view, he told us we were going to have to work harder and become desperate again to play for the Springboks because it’s a huge honour – the biggest of one’s career.
“We were reminded that the Springboks have won big before – we’ve won World Cups, we won the British and Irish Lions series, we’ve been number one in the world, we beat the All Blacks three times in a row in 2009 and we’re such a great symbol of hope for the country.
“Rassie said all these things and hit the nail on the head. I was thinking of retiring but my biggest desire was to win the World Cup and when Rassie addressed us in the way that he did, I was 100% in and bought into his plan all the way.
“We all worked hard and when we came together, everyone knew what was expected of them. From the first Test, Rassie had a plan. We had about 18 or 19 Tests until the World Cup final and he said our goal was to get to the World Cup final and win it.
“He said it from the first Test match and he knew step by step this is the route we’re taking. He said along the way, we’re going to have a few losses but we’re not going to lack in effort.
“We’re going to work hard, give it our best shot and if we lose a couple along the way, that’s fine, we know the bigger picture.”
Mtawarira said the turnaround was due to “a whole lot of things coming together”, but noted one of the key factors was Siya Kolisi’s appointment as captain.
“Siya being captain united everybody – the whole country. It was the first time a black African was named as captain, so it was powerful and came at the right time.
“Siya is such a powerful symbol of hope – what he came through…his story is incredible. Everyone has so much respect for him and he led from the forefront.
“We kept at it, improving bit by bit, and shocked the world by turning it around in 2018 and winning the World Cup in 2019. It’s a pretty incredible story.”
That his final frontier in the Green and Gold was the masterful 32-12 massacre of England in the World Cup final in Yokohama was truly fitting.
With the International Stadium Yokohama as his canvas, Mtawarira painted his Mona Lisa as he trampled England tighthead Dan Cole in the last and most important Test of his life.
In one last glorious stand, he ripped the heart and soul out of the English pack by winning four first-half scrum penalties.
With his masterpiece complete and the foundation for ultimate glory laid, Mtawarira made his well-deserved curtain call three minutes into the second half.
When the dust settled, ex-Sharks and Springbok captain John Smit, who’d scrummed down with Mtawarira for a large part of his decorated career, paid tribute to his former teammate, saying, “Beasty, 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, nobody in the front row can live with you!”
Receiving his World Cup winner’s medal was the crowning moment of Mtawarira’s rugby journey, which included a Rugby Championship title in the lead-up to the 2019 global showpiece and three Currie Cup titles with his beloved Sharks in 2008, 2010 and 2013.
The Players’ Fund’s popular weekly interview series concludes this Thursday evening with 2007 World Cup-winning Springbok coach Jake White as the special guest.
Springbok supporters also stand a chance of winning the official Springbok Opus – the ultimate celebration of the extraordinary history of this symbol of a nation, from the first games played in 1891 through wars, social change, unification and, ultimately, recognition as World Cup champions.
This limited edition book – No.2 of 20 – was signed by the Springbok squad in September 2015 and donated to the Players’ Fund.
Raffle tickets for this incredible piece of memorabilia cost just R100 and only 300 tickets are on sale. The winner will be announced on Thursday.
To enter the raffle and book for the FREE webinar with Bulls director of rugby White, CLICK HERE.
Meanwhile, limited edition Springbok Supporters’ face masks in celebration of the 25th anniversary of South Africa’s maiden World Cup triumph are still available at Pick n Pay stores nationwide.
All profits will be donated to the Players’ Fund, the official charity of the Springboks which supports rugby players in South Africa whose lives were changed through serious injury on the field.
For more information and to donate to the Players’ Fund, CLICK HERE.