Tendai Mtawarira: The beast unleashed

He's become a cult hero in the southern hemisphere this season, now fans in the north are getting their first taste of the phenomenon that is larger than life Springbok prop Tendai Mtawarira
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Britain has not only had to brace itself for the seasonal onslaught of snow, sleet and showers this autumn, but also for the invasion of the 'Beast'.

South Africa's Tests against England, Scotland and Wales provided northern hemisphere fans with their first glimpse of the phenomenon that is Tendai Mtawarira.

The Springbok prop is already a household name across South Africa, as well as the southern hemisphere. Chants of 'Beaaast!' reverberate around packed stadiums whenever the 22-year-old loosehead gains possession and sets off on one of his trademark charges.

In little over a year since he made his Super 14 debut against the Waratahs in 2007, Mtawarira has become a cult figure in the Shark Tank - The Absa Stadium Durban - and this hero worship has spread like wildfire to other rugby stadia in the Republic, as well as across the Indian Ocean, to the Antipodes.

On matchday in the Shark Tank, the sight of the 18 stone Mtawarira striding towards the dressing-room, headphones on, listening to either gospel tunes or some soothing operatic arias by the likes of the late Luciano Pavarotti, always sends a stir of excitement through the hordes of spectators filing through the turnstiles, too.

"I tell myself that I'm not a celebrity," the big, 18 stone loosehead prop argues, while flashing that million dollar smile. "I'm just somebody who's trying to make it in life."

Mtawarira, quite appropriately if you consider the image of Beast under a full head of steam, views himself as a warrior. "You have to fight for what you want; you have to be prepared to die for what you believe in," is Mtawarira's philosophy of life.

And he loves the fantastic support he receives, as was the case during the Sharks' recent Currie Cup final triumph in Durban, when he had 50,000-odd fans chanting his nickname whenever he had the ball. "It's really special," he says. "It makes it a big occasion. Naturally, the guys tease me about it, but the support is something I really relish."

This brings us to the nickname and how it originated.

"I was called 'Beast' at primary school, because I was a bit of a bully and the name has stuck ever since," he says with refreshing candour.

Mtawarira's road to the Sharks front row took a few interesting turns along the way.

At the age of nine, growing up in Harare, he was playing soccer when a local rugby coach spotted his huge frame dominating the other children. He was convinced to take up rugby, but he did not enjoy it immediately. "It was a bit rough for me at first and I got knocked a few times," he says. "But I learnt quickly and got into it when I went to high school. My size also helped me at the time as I was a bit bigger than the other guys in my age group."

A committed christian, The Beast swears he is now a gentleman who is folllowing a better path - at least off the field rather than on where he still seeks to wreak as much damage as he can.

The amazing fact about Mtawarira, from a rugby-playing perspective specific, is that he was playing No.8 only a couple of years ago. Yet, having made his international debut for South Africa against Wales at Bloemfontein earlier this year, he has swiftly established himself as the frontline loosehead and already has seven Springbok Tests under his belt.

"Becoming a Bok was truly a moment to cherish," he enthuses in his deep baritone voice. "What an honour.

"The past couple of seasons have been very challenging for me, though, because I wasn't a prop originally. Things happened pretty quickly for me, but the guys around me at the Sharks, like Brendon Botha (now with Ulster), Deon Carstens, Balie Swart and John Plumtree (Sharks coach) have helped me a lot in making the transition (Swart has the unique distinction of winning two RWC medals with South Africa, as a player in 1995 and as scrummaging coach in 2007).

"I still have a lot to learn. In fact, I'm still far off from where I want to be as a front-row player. I'm looking forward to improve my game all the time."

In his Super 14 debut against the Waratahs last year, Mtawarira had to pack down against Wallaby prop Al Baxter, and as the first scrum went down Baxter had quite a bit to say.

"I'm going to chow you, mate..."

The Zimbabwean-born youngster, however, was not perturbed and

replied: "No, no, no... I'm going to chow you!" And he did, shunting his veteran opponent off his own ball at a later scrum.

Mtawarira's baptism of fire in the Tri-Nations was no bed of roses, either, as the Springboks finished bottom in this year's southern hemisphere series, a mere 10 months after they had been crowned world champions in France.

"We might not have achieved exactly what we wanted in this year's Tri-Nations. However, we do have a new coach and management

team in place, with several new players coming into the mix, like yours truly," the prop says.

"So, from that point of view, we have started setting a platform from which we can steadily improve, with the bigger picture of RWC 2011 in mind. We've got a good squad of players to choose from, so there are exciting times ahead.

"That was clear when we beat Australia (53-8) in the last match of the recent Tri-Nations in Johannesburg. Everything, including the scrummaging side of things, went well that day; we really started to gel as a team."

Part of the future excitement that lies in store for Mtawarira and the Springboks, is the 2009 visit to South Africa by the British & Irish Lions.

"Ah, the Lions," he sighs. "What an honour that will be; it's every Springbok player's dream to play against the men in red. However, I've got to be selected first."

Judged by the way he has made his mark on the international stage, in a relatively short period of time, and considering that he is already being earmarked in certain quarters as South Africa's next Os du Randt, Beast is sure to be a major obstacle in the way of the 2009 British & Irish Lions.

More significantly, from a socio-political perspective, he has been a champion of transformation in not only rugby but sport at large.

As SA Rugby continues to be dogged by political controversies, like the most recent furore over the Springbok emblem, and artificial endeavours towards transformation in the sport, Beast and his massive popularity, among mostly white kids, is a chief example that real transformation, as well as the changed mindsets that have to go with it, is actually happening - in a natural and spontaneous way.

For all the white young fans who hound Beast whenever he makes a public appearance, whether it be for an autograph, a quick yarn or merely a tap on the back, have not been instructed to do so by political or rugby authorities. Tendai Mtawarira is not a token player; Beast is the real McCoy.

This story was sourced from International Rugby News