The World Cup-winning Springbok prop reflects on the 2009 series with Jon Cardinelli – and offers his travel tips for visiting fans
Tendai Mtawarira on facing the British & Irish Lions
Tendai ‘Beast’ Mtawarira will go down in history as one of the most accomplished players of the professional era. Last year, the South Africa prop retired after winning a British & Irish Lions series, a Tri-Nations, a Rugby Championship and a World Cup over the course of an 11-year stint with the Springboks.
Fans in the northern hemisphere may remember Mtawarira as the destroyer of English tightheads. He powered through Dan Cole in the 2019 World Cup final to give his forwards an edge and set the tone for a famous South African victory.
Ten years earlier, he out-scrummaged the more fancied Phil Vickery to help the Boks win the set-pieces and ultimately a crucial first Test against the Lions.
“It felt surreal running out onto that field to face the fabled Lions,” Mtawarira says. “I was desperate to make a mark as one of the youngest guys in the Bok team.
“A lot was said in the media before the first Test about how they wanted to destroy us in the scrum. They saw that John Smit (the Springbok captain, who played most of his career at hooker) was starting at tighthead and that a young, relatively unknown player in myself was starting at loosehead. They thought they saw an opportunity – and ultimately they underestimated us.
“And you know what? We took it personally,” Mtawarira adds, before breaking into one of his booming laughs.
“I remember sitting there in the change room before the game. The front-rowers were getting fired up. Bismarck du Plessis told me that this was my moment to shine.
“The training that week had been so intense, especially around the scrums and collisions. We were going out there to be as physical as possible. By the time that first whistle blew at Kings Park, I was ready to get stuck in. I unleashed the beast, so to speak, from the very first collision.”
Mtawarira reveals that the plan was to go after Vickery at the scrum from the outset. The Boks felt that Vickery was the key to the tourists’ set-piece success. If they could nullify the tighthead, they could control the contest.
“We’d done out homework on Vickery. He went into that series as pretty much the best tighthead on the planet. We knew we’d be in trouble at the scrum if he was allowed to settle and to get into a strong position to win the hit.
“So we looked to disrupt him. I got a strong bind and used everything I had to get under him. While I was going after Vickery, Bismarck did his best to block the other front-rowers from lending Vickery assistance on that side.
“We really surprised them as a unit. We did that at the first scrum, and at the second. We did it again, and again. They had no response. We grew in confidence as the contest progressed and the rest, as they say, is history.”
Gary Gold – the current USA head coach – served as the Springbok forwards coach between 2008 and 2011. He still gets goosebumps when he’s asked to talk about the day that Mtawarira took down an England legend at Kings Park.
“I’ve been coaching for more than 20 years. In all that time, I haven’t witnessed a bigger game-changing moment than when Beast destroyed Vickery in that first Test,” says Gold.
“He set the tone for us at the scrum and that went a long way towards winning the game. Vickery was subbed early in the second half. It was a massive win within a win, and we rode the momentum into the next match to clinch the series.
“I can’t remember who was named the official Man of the Series, but for me Beast was right up there.”
The countdown to the next instalment of this epic battle has begun. For the third time in the professional era, the Boks will go into a Lions series as world champions. The side from the north will be keen to prove a point.
While it remains to be seen who will come out on top, a special level of intensity, says Mtawarira, will be guaranteed.
“I grew up in Zimbabwe watching South African rugby and the Super Rugby tournament in particular,” he says. “When the Lions toured in 1997, I watched the games closely. Back then, I had my heart set on becoming a loose forward. Gary Teichmann and Bob Skinstad were my heroes.
“What struck me about the matches between South Africa and the Lions was the brutality of it all. It seemed to be on another level to anything else in rugby.
“Scott Gibbs ran over Os du Randt at one point in that series. It was something I struggled to process: a centre running over a loosehead prop! So that’s how the Lions were built up in my mind from a young age, and why I had so much respect for them going into the 2009 series.”
The big man still follows the local game closely. Prior to lockdown, he attended Super Rugby games at Kings Park to support the Sharks – a team he represented for the duration of his professional career.
“I can’t wait to see the Sharks tackle the Lions at Kings Park,” he says of the tour fixture scheduled for 10 July 2021. “That’s still a few months away, and already there’s a big buzz about it at home and up north. It’s going to be truly special.”
Tendai Mtawarira’s South Africa travel tips for Lions fans
“Nothing beats a day out at one of the beaches on the East Coast,” says Mtawarira, a long-time Durban resident and a father of two.
“My favourite spot is out at Ballito (50km north of Durban). I often take the kids and the dogs out there for some fun in the sand and waves.
“The weather is warm the year round in this part of the world. I’m sure that the tourists will take advantage when the Lions come to town. Closer to home, the Umhlanga area boasts golden beaches as well as a number of bars where one can enjoy a cold one after a long, warm day.
“There’s plenty to do around Kings Park. Adrenaline junkies will love the Big Swing at Moses Mabhida Stadium across the road. We often go to uShaka Marine World on the beachfront. There are a number of water activities for the kids as well as a world-class aquarium.”
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