Tendai Mtawarira: The Beast of the front row

He has acquired a fearsome reputation (and a new name to match) since leaving Zimbabwe. South Africa's rising star talks to Simon Turnbull

The first name on South Africa's team sheet for Saturday's engagement with Scotland at Murrayfield? Beast. Beast Mtawarira. They like to print their line up from 1 to 15, the Springboks, and the No 1 position – that of loosehead prop – has become occupied by the imposing 6ft 2in, 18st 2lb unit who started his life back in his native in Zimbabwe as Tendai Mtawarira. Not that you will find any mention of his actual first name on the paperwork carried by the world champions on their end-of-year tour.

So when did he become the Beast, the 23-year-old who has come to fill the gargantuan Springbok void left by the man known as 'the Ox', the mountainous Jacobus Petrus – 'Os'– du Randt? "I've had it for a long time," Mtawarira replied, with a deep bass voice somewhere down in the Barry White region. "I've had it since I was nine years old. It's something that's stuck. It was my school-mates who gave me it."

It had something to do with him being "a bit of a bully" in his primary school days in Harare, Mtawarira confessed. It was back then, when his huge frame was knocking down smaller contemporaries in a football match, that a local rugby coach thought he might be better suited to the rough and tumble of the 15-man game. It has only been in the past two years, though, that Mtawarira has made a name for himself as a beast of a prop.

A fearsome scrummager and battering ram ball carrier, he started to emerge as a talismanic figure with the Sharks in the Super 14 competition last season. Since his debut appearance for South Africa against Wales in Pretoria in June, the Springbok crowd have come to mimic the chant that has become familiar whenever he gets the ball in 'the Shark Tank', the old Kings Park Stadium in Durban: "Beast! Beast! Beast!" He says: "I don't really hear much when I'm on the field. I get told about it after the game, that they were chanting my name. It is special."

The same could be said of the Beast, who has swiftly established himself not just as a cult figure in South Africa but also as the natural successor to the Ox as the Springboks' first-choice loosehead. Du Randt won his 80th and last cap as a World Cup final winner against England in Paris in October last year. It was his second taste of success in the Webb Ellis Cup, having been in the Springbok side that lifted it on home soil in 1995. A Bloemfontein farmer, he was drawn from rather different African stock than Mtawarira, who played for Zimbabwe at schools level and who (like Brian Mujati, the fellow prop who will be on the replacements' bench at Murrayfield) qualified for South Africa on residency grounds.

It was while playing as a No 8 for Peterhouse School south of Harare that Mtawarira was spotted by the Sharks and invited to become a member of their academy set-up in Durban. His conversion to prop only came in 2006 and yet now, after an excellent Tri Nations season and eight caps in all, he has become a cornerstone of the Springboks' front row. "It's a huge honour to be in the team and in the No1 jersey," he reflected, sitting on the first floor of an Edinburgh hotel, looking out to the Royal Mile. "I definitely want to play my part. All the guys in the pack are behind me. And, of course, Bismarck and John are next to me, so I'm ready for anything."

Yes, Bismarck and the Beast – these are changed times for the Boks down at the coal face. Against England in the World Cup final 13 months ago they had the seasoned trio of Du Randt at loosehead, John Smit at hooker and CJ van der Linde at tighthead. Against Scotland on Saturday, Mtawarira will be packing down at loosehead, with Bismarck du Plessis at hooker and Smit in the unfamiliar realm of tighthead. For Smit, who equals Du Randt's Springbok forwards' record cap haul of 80, it will be a second successive appearance in the No 3 jersey, having filled it in the 20-15 victory against Wales in Cardiff last Saturday.

"Last weekend showed that John can play tighthead," Mtawarira said of the Springbok captain. "He's doing very well. We're doing a lot of work together. Just today we had a very good scrumming session. We've got to take that confidence on to the field against Scotland."

South Africa might still be striving for a measure of consistency under their coach of 11 months, Peter de Villiers, but even after taking their foot off the pedal with 30 minutes remaining in Cardiff they still managed to shut out the Welsh on the try front. At Murrayfield they will be facing a Scotland team who have failed to score a try at home for 14 months. Still, Mtawarira in particular could be in for a difficult afternoon in the west end of Edinburgh on Saturday.

The stand out performer for the Scots in their 32-6 defeat against a shadow All Blacks side last Saturday was the man who will be Mtawarira's direct opponent. Euan Murray, Scotland's tighthead prop, gave a torrid time to Jamie Mackintosh, the 6ft 5in, 20st 6lb giant who was making his debut at loosehead for New Zealand. Mtawarira is likely to provide a more thorough examination of the 28-year-old Scot's credentials as a potential British and Irish Lion.

"Their loosehead..." Murray had pondered, across the Scottish capital at Murrayfield, earlier in the day. "I don't even know what his real name is, but he has a reputation for dismantling tightheads." Someone suggested it might be billed as Beauty and the Beast. The thought clearly tickled Murray, a beast of a size himself at 6ft 1in and 18st 9lb.

Certainly, it promises to be an intriguing battle-within-a-battle: the Beast and the Northampton Saint. Murray is a thoughtful, quietly-spoken character. He happens to be an accomplished piano player among the piano-shifters and a qualified vet too. He is also deeply religious, his Christian faith having been strengthened by the episode that almost led to the curtailment of his rugby career – the seizure he suffered while playing for Glasgow against Munster three years ago.

The day after a shift on the international scene, Murray likes to "go to church and have a sleep." He is expecting a particularly punishing 80 minutes on Saturday. "The Springboks are the most physical team I've played against," he said. "They've got the biggest, strongest, fastest forwards. They're very abrasive, very direct. With New Zealand, there's probably more stepping and stuff, more changing of direction. The South Africans just run at you like trains."

It remains to be seen if Murray and his team-mates can put a few autumn leaves on the Murrayfield line. Mtawarira, for one, remains wary of them. "The Scottish pack did very well against the All Blacks," he said. "They caused them problems. Euan Murray's a good tighthead. He'll be a big challenge, definitely. I look forward to taking him on."

Then, when the Murrayfield match is over, and it comes to booking a table for dinner, what name might South Africa's new prop idol be using. The enquiry drew a hearty laugh. "I call myself Mr Beast," the No 1 Springbok proclaimed.

The Beast's credentials

Date of birth: 08-01-1985

Weight: 115 Kg

Position: Prop

Height: 188 cm

Born: Harare, Zimbabwe

Test caps: 7

Club: Natal Sharks

* Admits he was a bully at school: "I was quite nasty to the other kids, but now I call myself a gentleman."

* Is a committed Christian.

* Spotted by a local rugby coach at the age of nine playing football in the streets of Harare.

The name of the game

Other monikers that grab you in the world of sport...

Creedence Clearwater Coutu

A Brazilian footballer who was plying his trade in the Belgian top division in 2006 and owes his name to the American rock 'n' roll group.

Urban Shocker

This Major League pitcher played for the New York Yankees and St Louis Browns between 1916 and 1928.

Prince Octopus Dzanie

This amateur boxer from Ghana appeared at the Beijing Olympics but lost his first fight to much-fancied Cuban Idel Torriente.

World B Free

Lloyd Bernard Free played in the NBA between 1975 and 1988, changing his name to World in 1980. He is currently the Philidelphia 76ers' community relations director.

Hercules and Samson Satele

Are these the two strongest men in the NFL? Hercules plays for the Arizona Cardinals while Samson is a centre with Miami Dolphins.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
travel
News
news
News
Sir James Dyson: 'Students must be inspired to take up the challenge of engineering'
i100
Life and Style
Apple showed no sign of losing its talent for product launches with the new, slightly larger iPhone 6 making headlines
techSecurity breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Arts and Entertainment
Catherine (Sarah Lancashire) in Happy Valley ((C) Red Productions/Ben Blackall)
TV
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?