‘Beast’ promises a war in front row
Tendai Mtawarira vows not to take a backward step with Boks, writes Tom Cary in Tokyo ‘We’re going to be very physical. It’s all about who takes charge’
When Joel Stransky dropped the winning goal in the World Cup final in Johannesburg in 1995, Tendai Mtawarira did not have a clue the game was going on. He was 700 miles away in Harare, and more interested in football.
“I was just a primary school kid in Zimbabwe back then,” recalled the veteran Springbok loosehead, who will pack down opposite Kyle Sinckler in Saturday’s World Cup final. “I didn’t watch rugby. I was playing soccer.
“In 2007, though [when South Africa beat England in the final in Paris], I did watch and it was amazing, inspirational stuff.
“To be part of a World Cup final is a dream come true for me. I have worked hard throughout my whole career to get here and I want to make it count.”
Mtawarira – or “Beast” as he is universally known – will be one of South Africa’s key players on Saturday. Aged 34, he may no longer be the physical specimen he once was. The rampaging runs have slowed a bit.
The shouts of “Beeeaaast” as he drives over the gain line with two or three defenders hanging off him marginally less frequent.
But there is a reason Rassie Erasmus, the head coach, keeps on picking him. Mtawarira weighs well over 18st, he is hugely powerful and technically gifted, more than capable of giving Sinckler nightmares if the England tighthead is not on his game.
Just ask Phil Vickery. Mtawarira had only converted from the back row to prop a couple of years before the British and Irish Lions toured South Africa in 2009, having been spotted playing for Zimbabwe Under-19s by the Natal Sharks.
Beast won the first Test at Kings Park almost single-handedly, becoming something of a cult figure in the process. A decade on he has made 116 appearances for his country.
Erasmus’s plan will be to use his heavy front row of Mtawarira, Bongi Mbonambi and Frans Malherbe to sap England’s energy before sending on his finishers. Mtawarira says he will give his opposite man the respect he deserves on Saturday, Sinckler having emerged as one of world rugby’s best tightheads in the past two years. But he will not be in the least bit fazed by facing a front row of Mako Vunipola, Jamie George and Sinckler.
“They’re playing great rugby,” he said. “Mako and Kyle have really been performing well. They’ve definitely formed a great combination. It will be exciting to go up against them.” Mtawarira said the extra day off England enjoyed following their win over New Zealand on Saturday, before South Africa defeated Wales on Sunday, would “not make a massive difference”. But he does believe that the comprehensive manner of England’s victory over the world champions makes them marginal favourites.
“I’d probably say so,” Mtawarira said. “They’re playing really well. Their performance was brilliant. Maybe we’re the underdogs. We are going to have to be at our best. They outplayed a really good team [in New Zealand].
“We’re going to have to be very physical. I think it’s going to be a game for the big moments. It’s all about who takes charge of those big moments.”
Mtawarira will certainly not be taking a backward step in the final in Yokohama. Born and raised in Harare, his was a circuitous route to the top – via a full scholarship to renowned rugby nursery Peterhouse Boys’ School, before, in quick succession, Zimbabwe Under-19s, the Natal Sharks and then the Springboks.
His progression has not been without its setbacks. As South Africa’s fortunes have risen and fallen over the past decade, there have been times when his own form has dipped. Despite this, he has remained an unbelievably consistent presence on the international stage and has more than earned this shot at World Cup glory. He has faith.
South Africa and England are 2-2 in terms of games won over the past 18 months. But he says he pays no attention to those results, or to the fact that no country has won the World Cup having lost one of their pool games.
“What has happened in the past doesn’t really count,” he said. “England are playing great rugby and with confidence, so it is going to be a big challenge for us.
“But it’s all about grabbing those big moments out there. We know we’ll have to play out of our skins to win on Saturday.”
Blockbuster: Tendai Mtawarira will be up against England’s Kyle Sinckler on Saturday