‘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’

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Rugby World Cup -

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

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