LONDON – Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira is halfway through responding to a question about how he wants to be remembered when his voice begins to tail off.
The man who took Dan Cole to pieces in the Rugby World Cup final is reflecting not only on the most glorious of finishes to his international career, but his 11-year association with the Springboks as a whole.
“I want to be remembered as a guy who defied the odds. I came in as a young kid from Zimbabwe with nothing. Nobody knew me. I had to earn my place, firstly with the Sharks and then from there I kept on working hard. I never rested on my laurels…” Mtawarira’s eyes well up. He takes a moment, sitting back in his chair, composing himself. “Oof, I’m getting a little bit emotional here,” he admits followed by a booming laugh.
It has been slightly more than 11 days since Mtawarira wore the Springbok jersey for the final time, appropriately by delivering a scrummaging masterclass against England in Yokohama a decade on from his other famous demolition job on Phil Vickery against the British and Irish Lions.
He is on his third continent in less than a fortnight, having arrived in London to play for the Barbarians against Fiji today after a national tour of victory parades across South Africa. After winning the Rugby World Cup and winning the last of his 117 Test caps, there are still many moments and thoughts to process.
“It is still surreal,” he tells Telegraph Sport. “To realise we are actually world champions, it is amazing. What I have worked hard for my whole career. It has been my dream.
“I had my moment with the trophy, trying to fight it off the other guys as much as possible. It is a truly incredible feeling holding it in your hands.”
For the thousands upon thousands of supporters who have lined the streets of Gauteng, Durban, East London, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town since last week, just catching a glimpse of the trophy has been enough. South Africa has no shortage of domestic issues but this is no time for downbeat curmudgeons. The mood of national celebration should be savoured.
“To see so many different people, different types of people, different races coming together and celebrating, crying in the streets, being emotional when they see that World Cup… it just means so much to everybody,” Mtawaira notes. “Young kids out there, probably now aspiring to be Springboks. It brings a lot of hope to the people.”
Mtawarira was in his first year as a professional with the Sharks when South Africa last won the World Cup in 2007, a few months after Mtawaira had narrowly missed out on the Super Rugby title after a late Bryan Habana try for the Bulls. Mtawaira stayed for a dozen seasons with the Sharks, without ever getting as close again. “I always give Bryan a hard time about that! Afterwards, it felt like a curse. We should have won it and then just could not get a title.”
His time with the Springboks has been more fortunate, cementing the No. 1 shirt in Japan by, as he puts it, working his backside off to be part of the squad at the age of 34. Matt Proudfoot, the Springboks assistant coach, recalled after the final that Mtawarira had approached him in the build-up to the final asking ‘What can I work on in my game?’ After well over a century of caps, Mtawarira could have easily grown comfortable. Not that it was in his nature.
“You get to a certain stage where you are kind of comfortable, playing Test after Test and you assume it is just going to happen. (Proudfoot) was always honest with me that I had to work harder, and he has always been my go-to after a game, asking him what I could do better, how I was in the set-piece.”
Mtawarira’s time with the famously light-hearted Barbarians under Eddie Jones is unlikely to go into the same level of forensic detail. Video of Jones spotting Mtawarira’s watch in a team meeting – ‘That is what happens when you win the World Cup, you get a watch like that!’ – has been a social media hit.
“For me to get to know (Eddie) has been pretty cool. He’s a great human being. We spoke about the final, had a good chat. He was just saying that we played so well on the day, wanted it more on the day, was very sincere. It is not easy to talk about (for him), but he was very sincere and said that we were the better team on the day.”
Departing with his World Cup medal, Mtawaira leaves behind a Springbok side who he believes are now “more representative of the nation”. The 1995 Springbok winning side featured one black player, the late Chester Williams. There were two in 2007 in wingers Habana and JP Pietersen. In Yokohama, Mtawarira was one of seven black Springboks, including the captain Siya Kolisi.
“Rassie came in and was honest, saying that he wanted to get the balance of the team right,” Mtawarira explains. “He was very honest with every player, which I guess was something we were lacking in the past, because most coaches are trying to run around various issues.
“Rassie addressed the elephant in the room. Now you have guys in the team who are more than deserving of their jerseys, have earned their places.”
Back to that initial question regarding his legacy, there is a second part to Mtawaria’s answer, delivered after he pauses to reflect on an extraordinary journey. The boy first given the nickname ‘Beast’ in primary school, who arrived in South Africa from Harare, retires as a Springbok legend after a decade of adoring fans chanting that same nickname. “I want to inspire the young kid who has nothing, who comes from a tough background, who thinks that they cannot rise above their circumstances. I want to inspire that kid. You can become great. You do not have to let your circumstances define who you are. You can rise above them.”
Few players get that fairytale finish. Equally, few have deserved it more -The Telegraph.