Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira is 157 not out in Super Rugby caps, the highest score by a South African, and as he nostalgically looks back on his epic innings he will surely recall the day his bus from Bulawayo pulled up in Durban, discharging him with no more than a backpack of essentials and a heart full of dreams.
In that backpack were a few pairs of shorts and T-shirts, and a pair of rugby boots, and in his pocket was a R2000 cash gift from his dad. That was the sum total of the teenager’s worldly possessions as he contemplated the big wide world on Boxing Day in 2005, Christmas having been spent on the bus trip from Zimbabwe.
Mtawarira was not quite destitute in Durbs in that he was taking up a bursary with the Sharks Academy after having been talent spotted when his school, Peterhouse, had toured South Africa. But other than free tuition at Jonsson Kings Park, he had to fend for himself.
It is a curious fact that Mtawarira could have disappeared into rugby’s ether had it not been for the shrewd intervention of Sharks coach Dick Muir. When he was still under-20, Mtawarira was a loose forward and occasional lock but Muir saw a burly figure that was too slow for flank and too short for lock. He told The Beast he had no future at the Sharks unless he switched to prop, where Muir saw a bright future.
Muir sent him to local club Rovers where he was to play prop in their Under-20 team, only for the teenager to decline selection in the front row. To be fair to him, has there ever been a loose forward that wants to convert to prop?
Word got back to Muir and he called Mtawarira to what turned out to be a colourful meeting. Muir, who can be a tremendous showman, tore The Beast’s contract up before the stupefied Beast’s eyes, his dreams drifting in tatters to the floor.
He was told that if he didn’t follow instructions he was a goner but …and then came the sweetener … if he committed to play loosehead prop Muir would double his pay.
A year later, Muir gave Mtawarira a shot off the bench in the Sharks’ 2007 match against the Waratahs. That was Super Rugby match Number 1 and at the end of that season the Beast was starting in the Super Rugby final against the Bulls.
And two years after that he exploded onto the national scene when he destroyed British and Irish Lions tighthead Phil Vickery at Kings Park to provide the impetus towards a famous Springbok win.
By this stage, Tendai was not alone in Durban. It’s not widely known that his brother Ray was also at the Sharks Academy and he also was forced to change positions, from wing to flank.
After two years at the Academy he was signed by the Lions and they moved him to hooker! He broke his neck in a pre season game, but made a recovery and played three months for Crusaders in Durban before critically injuring knee ligaments, forcing him to retire. Tendai’s elder brother, Brian, is a maths teacher at Durban High School.
The Beast’s career as a Springbok needs little description, we know what sublime service he has given in the green and gold, but it is well worth noting that health issues nearly terminated his Bok career just as it was getting going.
He had not one, not two, but three heart operations to treat atrial fibrillation, which required electric current to be coursed through his veins.
There was also the passport drama that nearly had Mtawarira returned to Zimbabwe. Popular opinion is that then Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma arranged his citizenship, but it is reliably known that the green light intervention came from the top. As we would have expected from our greatest leader …
How should The Beast be remembered? For the rumbustious roars as he charged forward with ball tucked under his chest? Yes, but also for the following…
In the run up to his 100th Test match in 2018, he started a project called 100 Reasons to Dream. It was to try and make a lasting contribution from a significant moment in his career, his 100th cap for the Springboks.
The idea was to give away rugby boots to deserving people and Asics came on board as a sponsor.
At the time, he said: “I have never forgotten the first time I was given a pair of boots when I was at school and that was the stimulus. I started identifying young kids at schools who didn’t have boots, but were inspired to play the game.
“Then I heard about a ladies’ rugby team in the Eastern Cape and gave boots to them, and at the Cape Town Sevens last year I was able to give boots to the Zimbabwe Sevens team. I came from little … I must give back.”