Tendai Mtawarira overcomes life’s obstacles with power of body and mind
‘The Beast’ looking forward to Ireland clash as career goes from strength to strength
Tendai Mtawarira wanted to be a loose forward and it was against his will that he was moved forward in the scrum. But he soon became a powerhouse international prop. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times
BBC interviewer: I’ve seen you hit a heavy bag and it’s quite a formidable sight. How did another human being take those punches? George Foreman: Muhammad Ali? The toughest human being I ever got into a ring with . . . I hit him with some amazing punches . . . I remember one round I hit him a hard shot to the side and he fell on me. Out of desperation, he said: ‘That all you got George?’ That scared me.
Some men, a few good men, come through the toughest trials and tribulations with an unblemished smile. When probing Tendai Mtawarira last Tuesday morning about the treacherous barriers erected along his route to cap number 62 at loosehead prop, the Springboks most revered position (think Os du Randt), the Zimbabwean’s eyes never darkened. In fact, his demeanour remained forthcoming, revealing a character of natural humility founded on deep faith.
Mtawarira’s baritone voice is similar enough to Foreman in 1974 but his disarming nature is more akin to the pugilist’s modern-day persona.
And the gallery dare call him ‘Beast’ – the howl initially sounding like disapproval whenever he scoops the ball into his navel and leaps at game-keepers.
“It didn’t come because of my good nature,” he smiles. “It was a nickname one of my best friends gave me in school. I was a bit of a bully when I was in primary school. I was a big boy and used to throw my weight around a bit.”
Prized propping possessionHe’s unlike the usual South African rugby player because he wasn’t always one. And yet his fellow Springboks adore him. As does the Natal Sharks organisation, which rapidly shaped him from a No 8 into their prized propping possession.
But so many barriers – external political forces and internal organs – seem nothing but cruel. He manages a heart problem not dissimilar to what Leinster’s embedded South African Richardt Strauss recently experienced. That’s somewhat controllable.
What he couldn’t influence was the Springbok jersey being stripped from his back in 2010 when the ANC objected to his legality, despite being qualified to play for South Africa through the IRB’s three-year residency rule and having already amassed 22 caps, including the destruction of Phil Vickery in the first Lions test the previous season.
That hurt more than anything because Mtawarira made so many sacrifices in pursuit of his dream. Then a politician threatened to snatch it all away.
So Tendai Mtawarira understands struggle.
Foreman gave that interview last week to mark the 40th anniversary of the Muhammad Ali fight in Zaire. The wonder is if The Beast ever felt such fear.
“Fear? I wouldn’t really put it in those terms. At the start of my career I went up against a guy called Greg Somerville. I’m sure you know him, he was a tough guy, a seasoned tighthead with the All Blacks. I played my first test against him [it was actually his fourth]. He really gave me a hard time. My neck was so stiff afterwards.”
So you were afraid?
“[Laughing] A little bit of fear comes but you quickly have to refocus and carry on going. That day I learnt a lot.”
Real fear, the fear of loss, has manifested itself during Mtawarira’s meteoric rise to rugby’s pinnacle.
“Born and bred” in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, his tribe are the Shona people.
“For most Zimbabweans, English is the first language. When you are growing up you are told it is the language needed to communicate with the rest of the world so I would say Shona is my second language.”
Fourth languageAnd third or fourth language? “[Laughing] I can understand Zulu and Afrikaans in the team environment.”
The climb into that environment began with a scholarship to a mixed Anglican boarding school called Peterhouse. He was 17. “Growing up in Harare there wasn’t much rugby. I was a big Manchester United fan. My dad was also an avid soccer fan. I was a goalkeeper in school.
“Rugby was introduced in my school when I was nine years old. They saw me trying to play soccer, I wasn’t great at it, and they kind of forced me to join the rugby team. I wasn’t so keen but I quickly found my way. I played first team – somewhere in the forwards – then I went on to a High School called Churchill, which is a very good rugby school. They produced most of the Zimbabwe rugby Sevens guys.
“My parents were not as privileged as many people so they always tried to do their best for me. When the rugby scholarship came, it was a big opportunity – I had dreamt of going to that school. It was a private school, far from home.”
The next great risk was to change position as a fully formed adult but the ultimate dream, he admits, would not have been realised at No 8.
“I would have probably played provincial rugby but it would have been very difficult to break through to the international scene as a loose forward.”
At 6ft 1in and 18 stone, he’s far too small. The gargantuan Duane Vermeulen has two kilos and three inches on him.
Best decision“It was definitely the best decision to change to the frontrow. I wasn’t up for the idea. I was very negative but I’ve been fortunate to have some really good mentors in my life. A guy called Jeremy Thompson, who played for the Sharks as well, is one of my best friends. Just a good guy who came alongside me as a youngster playing under-21s and really helped me out. Helped me to keep a clear mind, and not to just think one way.”
Such was his raw power, within a year he was scrummaging against Greg Somerville.
“Yeah, they shifted me to loosehead prop a couple of months before the 2007 Super Rugby season.” Just before du Randt’s 13-year Springbok career drew to a close in the World Cup final.
It was Dick Muir’s idea, assisted by the recently departed Ireland forwards coach John Plumtree, but others saw him as the natural link in the ultimate Springbok chain.
“Balie Swart was the one who pretty much taught me everything I now know about scrummaging.”
Swart played tighthead in the 1995 World Cup final victory over the All Blacks. Du Randt was the young loosehead.
“It was really tough but I had guys like BJ Botha, Deon Carstens and John Smit that really came alongside me and helped me a lot. And Bismarck (du Plessis) as well. They all spent a lot of time with me, they didn’t have to, but they did.”
Away from rugby other forces didn’t come alongside him so readily.
In January 2010 Buthana Komphela, an ANC member of South Africa’s National Assembly and chairman of their sports committee, accused the SARU of “illegally” fielding Mtawarira. There was talk of deporting him to Zimbabwe.
It forced him to publicly respond: “I am a South African at heart. I love this country. It has become my home. It is everything to me. Wearing the green and gold of the Springboks is a huge honour for me. That jersey is part of me. The green and gold flows in my blood.”
France arrived for a three-Test series that June and The Beast, the Zi
mbabwean, was excluded.
“It was really hurtful. I remember being emotional in front of my wife [Kuziva], my fiancée at that time, when the Springboks squad was announced and I wasn’t in it. I remember getting the call from Oregan Hoskins [SARU president] to say they can’t pick me for the side as they need to sort out my citizenship.
“I had to watch France play South Africa. I couldn’t even sit down because I wanted to be there with the guys.”
Many migrantsLike so many migrants, his wife is also Zimbabwean but his children, daughter Talumba and son Wangu, only know South Africa as home.
“They are born and raised in Durban but my wife is like me, I met her in Zimbabwe. My daughter’s name is a special name we chose. It is a Zambian language called Tonga. It means the same as my name, Tendai, but in their language. Tendai means ‘Be thankful to God’. And Wangu means ‘my own flesh and blood’.”
For a time, their way of life was under a cloud. Eventually minister of home affairs Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma ended the drama by untangling the red tape. The passport arrived.
“Oregan Hoskins assured me it was going to be sorted out. Usually citizenship in South Africa takes 10 years so they sped up the whole process so I could play.”
“We got a great minister for sport in South Africa now [Fikile Mbalula]. It is something I hope won’t happen again so the youngsters who are not South African but want to play for the Springboks can have everything sorted out.
“I’m sure it won’t happen again.”
He deserved a controversy-free run but the heart problem got really serious on the night of November 9th 2012, just before the Ireland Test, when he was forced to spend the night in St Vincent’s hospital.
“It wasn’t the first time it happened. Every time I have to go in to get shocked! Guys are teasing me, calling me the ‘Ironman’ as I have to get my heart changed every time.”
“Ah, a bit scary. It started in 2010 and it occurred once or twice and I carried on going. The specialist in Durban, called Dirk Pretorius, a good guy who really helped me a lot, he told me it wouldn’t affect my rugby but I had to get it sorted out. It wasn’t a big operation, a small op in Cape Town where they put a catheter through your groin all the way to your heart and burn out the electrolytes that cause it to go out of sync sometimes.
“Quite a few things can trigger that – caffeine, sometimes stress, but it is something that can be sorted out, so I shouldn’t stress about it.”
But 2012 seemed more serious? “Yeah, when it happened the night before the Test I was very emotional because I really wanted to play.
Stayed positive“I’m a Christian so I strongly believe that all the things that come my way make me stronger, stronger in my character. I have learned a lot these past few years going through all this stuff. It made my belief stronger. I stayed positive.
“I’m sure that’s the last of the heart palpitations. I feel great, I’m in great nick, I really appreciate what I have. I never take anything for granted.”
What has been the darkest moment? “Jeez, I would probably say the passport thing. It was really scary. It was a really tough time, not just for me, but my whole family.”
So you were afraid?
“Ahhh . . . ”
Big smile, more belly laughter. Tendai Mtawarira doesn’t scare easy.
But back a beast into a corner and see what happens.