CAPE TOWN - “Beeeeeeaaaast!” That chant has reverberated around stadiums whenever Tendai Mtawarira or “Beast”, as he is, ironically, affectionately, known, sets off on a charge or gets possession of the ball. And it’s been the case for many years.
On matchdays, when visuals of the loosehead prop appear on stadium screens as he walks to the dressing-room with his headphones on, he gets the same reaction or, at the very least, there are ripples of anticipation when the 1.85m, 116kg frame is sighted.
Soon after making his Super Rugby debut back in 2007, Mtawarira became a cult figure, especially in the Shark Tank, there’s no doubt about that. And that quickly spread across South Africa. Later those fires of excitement could be seen further than just the borders of our country.
Fast-forward to 2009 when the Springboks faced the British and Irish Lions in the first Test in Durban, and “Beast” became even more of a hero. A big one.
He demolished the more-experienced Phil Vickery in the scrums, which led to Vickery being substituted after 45 minutes and Beast of course, receiving the Man-of-the-Match award.
That was undoubtedly his career highlight. But what has Beast” done recently to show that he’s still got it? Where are those rampaging runs that used to send crowds into a frenzy? In recent years, we’ve seen precious little of it.
What we do see whenever he features for the Sharks or Springboks is him getting the ball and running head down to gain one metre in ground, if even that. We see him conceding scrum penalties. And we don’t see nearly enough of an impact from him in open play to warrant those “Beast” chants that still do the rounds.
During the Boks’ first Test against France at Loftus, “Beast” carried the ball once, that’s right once, and he gained no ground. He was guilty of two handling errors and also conceded a scrum penalty.
I should probably add that he made 12 tackles and he didn’t miss one, but you can’t feature in a match just to make tackles.
In the second Test, “Beast’s” game was praised (although he had his hands full at scrum time again). Why? Because he was actually (a bit more) visible in open play and he won a scrum penalty. But yet it seems to have conveniently gone unnoticed that he also conceded a penalty at the set-piece and one in broken play.
Yes, in Super Rugby there were isolated times where he carried well, but it hasn’t been consistent. In fact, the only thing I think has been consistent in Mtawarira’s game has been him conceding scrum penalties.
This week Springbok assistant coach Matt Proudfoot said “to say a player with 90 caps is past it is crazy.” And that might be true. But if that player’s form suggests he might in fact be past it, then it’s not so crazy. Not at all. I agree that “Beast” brings a wealth of experience and that he can be a good mentor to the younger front-rankers, but that shouldn’t be the sole reason for him being immovably cemented in the Bok squad.
I think it’s time for the other guys to come into play. Guys like Steven Kitshoff and Trevor Nyakane, to name only two.
I believe that Kitshoff can do great things for the Boks. He brings a different dynamic. Not only is he a powerful scrummager, but he can add a lot in open play, too. And that tackle at Kings Park rattled the French deep into their bones.
Nyakane, on the other hand, can play at both loosehead and tighthead, and he can scrum. And when it comes to general play, he’s one of the best ball-carrying props you’ll see up front.
These are guys who offer a lot - not just the absolute basics that a prop must have, but a little extra as well. So it’s time they get a decent shot.
In fact, the shelf life of players should stop being the ultimate focus point. It’s time that we stop testing how long we can squeeze a few more decent performances out of “experienced” players before we look to the younger guys.
Especially when those younger guys come in the shape of a Steven Kitshoff or a Trevor Nyakane.