Mtawarira’s beastly run of success

Tendai Mtawarira (Gallo)
Tendai Mtawarira (Gallo)

Johannesburg - From the day he bawled like a newborn baby when singing the national anthem ahead of his Test debut against Wales in June 2008, the Zimbabwe-born Tendai Mtawarira has bled green and gold, to the point of being a permanent fixture in the Springbok team.

This culminated in his becoming the first Bok prop to earn 100 international caps, the sixth South African and the first black African to do so. Here are five things that contributed to the man simply known in world rugby as Beeeaaast being, well, a beast.

Becoming a prop took some convincing

Dick Muir, the Sharks’ former head coach who’s back as assistant coach this year, tells the wonderful story of why and how Mtawarira was sold the idea of moving from loose forward to prop in 2006.

“It was quite a simple thing for me – he was an incredible athlete who was incredibly strong. But he wasn’t quite fast enough for a loose forward or tall enough for a lock, so the front row was the only place he could go if he wanted to make a career out of rugby.”

Mtawarira did not receive the news well.

“But he’s such a polite guy, he agreed, even though he clearly wasn’t convinced. I asked him to try it out at Berea Rovers, where [former Sharks assistant coach] Sean Everitt was coach, and he didn’t turn up. When I asked him, he lied to me and told me it was tough.

“That’s when I tore up his contract right in front of him and threw it in the dustbin, replacing it with a three-year agreement paying him twice what he was on. I told him: ‘If you want to go elsewhere, you can go, but this three-year contract says I’m backing you to do it.’”

Not afraid of hard work

Former Springbok captain and Sharks hooker John Smit says Mtawarira may not have been enamoured when told his future lay at prop, but once he bought into it, he worked tirelessly at it.

“When he realised there was potential for something bigger, the guy trained hard. We used to joke about it, but I’d never seen a guy work that hard. We’d go on tour and he’d eat everybody else’s food and train, and he got himself big and strong and into the shape of a prop. We’ve seen flanks make the transition to hooker, but I don’t think anyone else could have transitioned the way he did. Even today, I think he’s kept his loose forward’s athleticism and the ability to move around the field.”

Brute strength

Locks Anton Bresler and Eben Etzebeth are alive and well today, partly because when they both had kickoff receipts go wrong in matches, where Mtawarira was their assigned prop. Each time he held them for what seemed an eternity above his head by the stitching of their shorts as they were suspended upside down, before safely bringing them down.

Those incidents were an all-too public revelation of the man named Beast’s brute strength, something Marc Steele, the Sharks’ former conditioning coach, had known when he first met Mtawarira in 2006.

“One of the first things I picked up was his fantastic build, based purely on genetics. We had to be strategic about concentrating on the core aspects of his power and, when the penny dropped, he really responded well to it. When he started out, he could bench 185kg, squat 210kg and do an 80kg to 100kg overhead squat. The numbers he could do back then formed the cornerstone for his longevity.

“The really good thing about Beast was his aerobic capacity. He could do 760m to 765m in repeat sprints, which meant he could go for 80 minutes in a game and you wouldn’t have to sub him.”

Relentless scrummager

“You know you’ve had a s**t game when you get text messages from your mum, your sister and your Mrs saying they still love you.”

These were the words of veteran prop Phil Vickery after his infamously torrid afternoon at Mtawarira’s hands in the first of three tests between the Springboks and the British and Irish Lions in Durban in 2009. It was a performance that made the younger man’s reputation and destroyed Vickery’s.

Former Bok tight head prop CJ van der Linde wasn’t entirely surprised, having encountered him in 2007.

“I played against him in a friendly between the Cheetahs and the Sharks, and the thing that stood out for me was his raw power, which was amazing to see because he’d just changed from a loose forward.

“He picked up a bit of weight, good weight, though, because he is one of the leanest props out there – and while he struggled technically at first, he started getting that he needed to keep his hip towards his hooker and his left elbow up for the tight head not to take him to ground.”

Van der Linde said what made Mtawarira an awkward opponent was his relentlessness at scrum time: “He’s such a determined guy and such a team man. You always knew you’d be up against a committed guy. He wasn’t just strong, it was a collective of things that made him difficult to play against.”

Cycling and eating

Smit says he thinks Mtawarira was still cycling to training at the Sharks when he was first called up for the Boks, and suspects he didn’t even have a driver’s licence when he got offered his first sponsored car.

“I’m not sure, but I’m almost sure he didn’t have a licence when he got his first sponsored car, so we had to get him some driving lessons and a licence. But he got his first sponsored car before he could drive a car.”

Steele confirmed Smit’s story about Mtawarira’s legendary eating: “He could eat a kilo and a half of steak and he could put away a litre of milkshake, but I never saw him touch a drop of alcohol.”

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