If ability alone were the deciding factor in the South African rugby squad for the Rugby World Cup this year, then a player most South Africans have forgotten would comfortably win a place.
Brian Mujati played for the Lions and Stormers before departing for the UK to join English Premiership club Northampton in 2009. He’d won 12 caps for the ‘Boks, admittedly ten of them as a substitute. He was seen as a decent prop, with the ability to handle the ball in broken play.
But Mujati is one of those players who needed to step out of his comfort zone. By leaving seductive Cape Town and going to England, he did just that. And the effect has been stunning.
Today, Mujati has become an integral part of the best front row in English rugby. Together with loose head prop Soane Tonga’uiha and England Test hooker Dylan Hartley, Mujati has formed a lethal combination of scrummaging power and high class technique.
In the recent Leicester v Northampton match, a meeting of first and second in the Premiership table, Mujati helped destroy a much heralded Leicester scrum on more than one occasion. His power scrummaging had the Leicester pack buckling, his strength forcing Leicester’s Argentine loose head Marcos Ayerza skywards.
Argentinian props are not used to such treatment but it didn’t come as a great surprise to Mujati’s boss, Northampton Director of Rugby Jim Mallinder.
Explaining the club’s decision to award Mujati an extended contract which will keep him at the club for at least another two years, Mallinder paid the South African a handsome compliment. “Brian has shown he has what it takes to compete at the top end of the Premiership.
“He has improved a lot as a player over the last year and his performances reflect the work he has put in off the field. But he is still a young man and we believe he has his best years in front of him.”
South Africa have not been as richly blessed for powerful tight heads in recent years as some might have expected. It is true Jannie du Plessis made a favourable impression last year and looks set for the World Cup. But the experiment of moving captain John Smit across from hooker to tight head prop, a move which was by no means a failure but not really a huge success, reflected the Springboks’ deficiencies in that department.
BJ Botha, now with Ulster, was seen as an efficient tight head, but hardly lethal. Indeed, the ‘Boks have not had one of those for quite some time.
But selecting Mujati as a member of the squad would enormously enhance the Springboks’ scrummaging power at this year’s World Cup. And as the ‘Boks showed against England at Twickenham last November, that area remains crucial even in a modern game where faster, more open play is hugely encouraged by the new law interpretations.
At 26, Mujati has made such progress that he looks technically equipped now to make much more of a success at Test level than he ever managed before. And as Jim Mallinder says, he will almost certainly get better.
But the 1.81m, 118kgs prop has already made some very eminent British scrummaging judges sit up and take notice. It’s a shame the Springboks will almost certainly ignore the evidence before their eyes.
I find that hard to understand. Sure, De Villiers has said he wants to pick only players who are playing their domestic rugby in South Africa. But that policy is already flawed: he has chosen Frans Steyn as full-back, even though the ex-Sharks man is at Racing Metro, the Paris club.
And under an ANC Government in South Africa which is constantly grumbling at the lack of true integration in South African Test rugby sides – i.e. the limited number of black players in the Springbok team – here is one who fully stands up to scrutiny as to whether he is good enough.
You would hope for Brian Mujati’s sake that his excellence and his considerable efforts since he arrived in the UK would be recognised by his own national selectors this year. But I’m sure he isn’t holding his breath in anticipation.