As rugby nicknames go, there are few more iconic than that of Tendai ‘Beast’ Mtawarira. A layman could be forgiven for feeling confused every time he picks up the ball and the stadium seems to fill with boos – in fact, it is his devoted fans’ booming blasts of this peculiar name.
For a towering man of over six foot and 18 stone, it is an appropriate sobriquet. Remarkably, it has its roots in a time before Mtawarira so much as knew what a rugby ball looked like.
“It started when I was a young boy; a nine year old in primary school,” he reminisces. “My best friend gave me that nickname because I was a bit of a man-child and bit naughty as well!
“He’s always calling me up to ask me for royalties because he’s the one that came up with it,” he adds, chuckling.
It seems today like there could have been no other path than rugby for a nine year old nicknamed the Beast to go down, but the man who is now synonymous with South Africa’s fiercely powerful game never even touched a rugby ball until the age of 10. Born and bred in Harare, Zimbabwe, rugby was way down on the list of sports played at school.
“I actually started off playing soccer – that was my first love,” he says. “At primary school I was a goalie and my dream was to play for Manchester United – Peter Schmeichel was the goalie at the time and that was my dream.
“There was no rugby at my school, but when I was 10 years old they introduced it. I was a big man and they offered me a try-out – I went, fell in love with it and started playing for the first team. That’s where the rugby journey started.”
It was an inauspicious start in the sport, but the reach of scouting networks is far and wide and it was only a matter of time before someone powerful spotted him. He moved to a proper rugby high school before his big break came while playing for a representative team for his country of birth.
“I went to a really good rugby high school, and I just fell in love with the game more and more. There was a tournament in South Africa and I was playing for the Zimbabwe Under 18s, and the Sharks’ scouts were there. They invited me to come to the academy and offered me a bursary to study, and play rugby.”
The Beast spent a few seasons honing his skills in the academy sides at the Sharks, and it was as he was coming to the end of his tenure as a junior that then head coach Dick Muir had a radical, career-defining idea.
“He had this idea to turn me into a loosehead prop. He said if I learnt the technique as quickly as possible, he’d have a spot for me in the Sharks team, so that was motivation enough for me to change position and go for it, big time. Balie Swart was the scrummaging coach at the time, so he took me under his wing and taught me everything I know to this day.”
That, as it happens, is an awful lot. Mtawarira rapidly developed into one of the world’s foremost loosehead props, becoming perhaps best known on British shores for the way he unceremoniously chewed up and spat out the previously invincible Phil Vickery on the 2009 Lions tour.
Video credit: ASICS Europe
Fast forward six years and he has amassed 64 caps as part of the most feared front row in world rugby. Alongside the du Plessis brothers, the Springboks have a trio that has struck fear into the heart of most comers for years. The Beast speaks fondly of his partners in scrummaging crime.
“I’ve been very fortunate to play with the du Plessis brothers for probably the last nine – or with Bismarck 10 – years as we played together in the under 21s. There’s a really close bond between us and we know each other really well.”
Those ten years have been quite a roller-coaster in the front row. Fears over safety and also the boredom of the crowd, forced to watch on as scrum after scrum ploughed straight into the dirt, have led to several changes of the rules at the set piece. Mtawarira is confident the current incarnation of the laws has struck the right balance between safety, and the need for the scrum to be a contest.
“It’s like the breakdown; always changing,” he shrugs. “I think the new laws have been great because they’re safe. For all the young guys that want to play in the front row, there were a lot of head and neck injuries before this, so they’ve definitely done a lot of good.
“It brings us confidence; it makes it difficult for teams that don’t want to scrummage to chase a quick hit and run away from the contest. Now there’s no hit, it means you really have to scrummage. It’s been good and it’s something at the Springboks, we really pride ourselves on.”
The Beast has been at the centre of that pride for over seven years. This autumn in England, he will be the cornerstone of the Springbok side as they attempt to muscle their way to a third Rugby World Cup trophy.
Beast by name, beast by nature – 20 years on from having that moniker bestowed upon him by his best friend, somehow it’s difficult to imagine him between the sticks at Old Trafford, isn’t it?
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Tendai ‘Beast’ Mtawarira provided direct insight into the development of the new Springboks jersey at the innovative ASICS Institute of Sport Science, Kobe, Japan.