The cries were diminished — has Beast has lost his ‘fear factor’?

2012-09-11 00:00

HOW many times did you hear the crowd chant “Beeeeeast!” at Patersons Stadium in Perth on Saturday?

Whether at home or abroad, and often uttered by both friend and foe in the stands, it is normally a trusty indicator of popular loosehead prop Tendai Mtawarira’s fire-and-brimstone involvement in open play.

Correct me if I am wrong, Western Australians and South African expats there, but from the television transmission it seemed apparent that the big fellow received noticeably little such adulation in the Castle Rugby Championship match.

South Africa were beaten 26-19 by mediocre Australia — severely denting their already long-shot title hopes — and in another imperfect, stilted exhibition from the Springboks, Mtawarira was among several of the relatively senior personnel to perform well below expectation.

This was arguably even the Sharks star’s worst of his 38 internationals thus far, as a rare yellow card for crudely obstructing Kurtley Beale off the ball as the Wallaby tried to spark a first half counter-attack only capped his oddly lacklustre outing.

He was largely anonymous in ball-carrying — usually a role he performs with serious relish — and not even able to get a proper scrumming handle on Aussie tighthead rival Ben Alexander, who had an unlikely field day, to make matters worse.

If singling out Mtawarira may seem unfair — other seasoned customers like captain Jean de Villiers, co-prop Jannie du Plessis and Morné Steyn were pretty wretched in Perth too — it is done primarily because “Beast” is more customarily one of the world-class elements in a rebuilding and injury-hit Bok side currently fielding glaringly few such global icons.

At 27, the Harare-born front-ranker ought to be approaching the prime of his professional rugby life, but apart from some early promise in the England series in June, his Test year under the new Heyneke Meyer regime has been nothing to write home about thus far.

Certainly, those halcyon days of turning the crusty Phil Vickery to mash and gravy in the 2009 British and Irish Lions tour seem a particularly distant memory at present.

Getting Mtawarira’s mojo back in time for the challenge of the All Blacks in Dunedin on Saturday is just one of the growing list of tasks facing coach Meyer over the next few days.

He is exactly the sort of player whose dynamic surges and potentially destructive scrummaging, when he really puts his mind to it, can be catalysts for an infectious sense of well-being throughout the Bok ranks.

So what are the chances of it happening?

I would suggest that if Mtawarira does somehow manage to turn things around from his plodding Perth display, it will have to occur on reserve batteries — because he may well be among several Sharks players in the national set-up whose minds may be willing, but bodies not quite able to muster full capability at present.

The Durban-based franchise, let’s not forget, went further than any other South African side in the latest, longest ever Super Rugby campaign and players like Mtawarira, Du Plessis, Marcell Coetzee and Willem Alberts have undergone an extraordinary criss-crossing of time zones.

There was all that near-weekly yo-yoing between continents in the knockout stages of that competition, and then not terribly long afterwards they were travelling the “other” way on the globe to Mendoza for green-and-gold commitments before another bodyclock-wrecking passage back to Australasia.

But there may be an additional reason for the decline of Mtawarira, who traditionally has not battled for enthusiasm in the Bok jersey: a conspicuous lack of competition for his specialist loosehead spot.

The behemoth Coenie Oosthuizen would probably be pushing hard had he not fallen prey to long-term injury himself (he is apparently due back fairly soon, encouragingly) but current “back-up” in the Test squad Dean Greyling of the Blue Bulls, for all his own ball-carrying strength, is yet to convince at the top flight at scrum-time.

So, either consciously or subconsciously, Mtawarira seems to be on a relatively easy ticket right now.

Is there a case, perhaps, for a gentle nudge, reminding him that in the midst of the French league lurks a pedigreed Gurthro Steenkamp?

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