Sharks coach Dick Muir thought the loose forward had potential – as a prop forward.
“No, Jesus doesn’t want me to play prop,” Smit recalls an anxious Mtawarira earnestly telling Muir.
But the coach got his way and all the Zimbabwean did from that day was “eat and train, eat and train.”
Smit reckons he packed on 12kg.“He worked his arse off.”
And then came the day the youngster made the Springbok squad as a loosehead prop.
“What now?” chuckled Muir.
“Jesus changed his mind,” quipped Mtawarira, no doubt grateful for divine inspiration.
It’s a story that Smit, a long-time teammate, enjoys telling because it captures the prop’s pleasant, non-demonstrative side that is largely his default position. Booms of “Beast” may echo around stadiums the world over whenever he carries the ball, but Mtawarira is quiet and introspective, all business despite the famous baritone.
On Saturday, his career crescendoed as he led the Boks out against England in Bloemfontein, ahead of his 100th Test match. It was a remarkable moment for many reasons. Only five other Springboks have cracked a century of caps. To have made it while mostly hunched over, battling some of the most ferocious men in rugby, underscores Mtawarira’s durability.
And doing it as an outsider, given his Zimbabwe roots, added to the accomplishment. But he has also been a powerful symbol for black players, especially at a time when SA rugby struggled to reconcile its past with its present – and future. The nonsense all those years ago around his eligibility – rooted in petty, spiteful politics – threatened to take away one of the game’s vibrant symbols.
If black youngsters can’t see top players who look like them – no matter from where they originate – how do they contemplate the possibilities of emulating their heroes?
Mtawarira has had a profound impact on South African rugby’s social conscience and his immovable stature has symbolised black rugby’s status; as if to say, we’re sticking around.
One particular Springbok who raised a cheer on Saturday was Lawrence Sephaka, the first black African to pack down in a Test front row wearing the green and gold, in 2001.
“Playing front row alone, that life’s not very easy,” said the grizzled ex-tighthead. “Getting 100 caps is a big moment, a proud moment, nothing short of remarkable. The door was opened [back then]. Beast did it justice – he kept it open, even when some tried to keep him out.”
If a player like Os du Randt broke the mould for the work a loosehead goes through, Mtawarira embellished that with his tackle counts and running game. “When we did fitness training, I tried and invariably failed to keep up,” said Smit. “He was Mister Dependable and when he didn’t go on a 50m burst, people would grumble, thinking a big burst was normal for every game.”
Although he always puts in an honest shift at the office, I’d argue that Mtawarira was never greater than in 2009 when he savaged British and Irish Lion Phil Vickery in the first Test at King’s Park. He was still wet behind the ears, a 10-game novice and just 23, but “Beast” mangled Vickery in one of the most extraordinary scrummaging performances of the recent age. There were predictable complaints about the Bok’s technique, but significantly Lions scrummaging coach Graham Rowntree conceded that Mtawarira had simply taken them apart. Vickery himself blamed nerves for the blowout.
It’s impossible to recall a single match when Mtawarira was handled, whether for the Sharks or the Boks. He has only ever been rock-solid. Aged 32 and with the signs of wear and tear slowly creeping up, Mtawarira has doubtless crested the wave. There are new contenders with whippersnappers like Steven Kitshoff and Ox Nche nipping at his heels. He can’t keep going back to the well forever.
He’s busy with a book now and the hope is that one of the game’s quieter individuals opens up more about his remarkable life. Timing has never been his problem.
He’ll know exactly when to sign off. When he does, it will be as one of the Boks’ greatest heroes.