April 8 2019 – IT WAS another auspicious personal occasion … and Tendai Mtawarira put in the sort of performance that thoroughly harked back to his more youthful heyday.
The popular loosehead prop was as prominent and revved-up as any Sharks colleague as the franchise produced their showing of the season to thrash the Lions 42-5 in a Super Rugby derby at Emirates Airline Park on last Friday.
He was forceful at scrum-time and an especially irresistible ball-carrier on the damp night, not averse to “bouncing” the odd opponent brave enough to try to thwart his stampede from front-on.
The Beast, wisely hauled off after almost 50 supremely industrious minutes with the game largely sewn up by then and plenty of further fish to fry in the competition, could hardly have wished for a more fitting ascension to most-capped South African player in the competition with 157 appearances.
He had looked more like a fresh-limbed 25-year-old than the 33 he is, and it was the sort of showing to raise interesting, overwhelmingly positive questions about his ongoing service to both the Sharks (he is a rare “one team” man in a first-class respect) and Springboks.
Does he look like a player consciously closing in on retirement? While Mtawarira is a legendarily unassuming character not renowned for making big statements or revealing his innermost thoughts too often, my own sense remains no, not yet.
With World Cups so often signalling stand-downs from Test rugby – or more broadly – by heavyweight figures, there will be some, understandable fears that he may be among Bok players for whom Japan toward the end of the year is a swansong tournament; he will have moved on to 34 by then.
Don’t write that possibility off, of course.
But if I were high up in the Sharks hierarchy, I know I would already be doing plenty to try to coax a couple more seasons (yes, 2020 and perhaps even 2021) out of the extraordinarily loyal character. If so, continued deployment for the national cause also seems a feasible enough option.
Simply, Mtawarira is a model professional: he must be a wonderful tonic, a bastion of assuredness, for the Sharks dressing room in a domestic climate where, increasingly, juniorization and inexperience are the orders of the day as more and more players from wide-ranging levels of rugby wisdom succumb to the temptation of lucrative overseas club contracts.
If the Crusaders could hang onto the services of their own enormously valued custodian of the No 1 jersey, Wyatt Crockett, for 13 seasons between 2006 and 2018 (and to well beyond his 35thbirthday, plus a tournament-wide caps record of 202), then why not the Sharks with Mtawarira, currently in his own 13th campaign and a man two and a half years younger than his former All Blacks rival?
Just one reason why this member of the elite Bok “100 caps-plus” club possibly has the potential to keep going influentially for a couple more seasons is his specific devotion to the Sharks’ cause: he is not one of those players who try to get the best of both worlds by, say, spending part of the supposed off-season playing rugby in Japan or in an increasingly fashionable short-term stint in England or France.
As formidable injury-related catalogues often indicate, such spells can have a harmful, cumulative effect on match overload, fatigue and the almost inevitable result of undesirable periods on the side-lines.
Mtawarira largely sidesteps such issues by having a proper few weeks of time away from the game at the height of summer, which must increase his chances of notable longevity in rugby.
When I spoke in the middle of last year to Gary Gold, one of the coaches who has had a meaningful impact on the Zimbabwean-born player’s career both in Durban and with the Springboks, he said he believed Mtawarira was “certainly in good enough shape, both physically and mentally, to go on for a year or two more”.
That scenario potentially takes the muscular front-ranker to the tantalising cusp of another, extremely poignant milestone: the possibility of representing the Boks in the 2021 series against the British and Irish Lions, the first between them in a dozen years and a highly unusual second crack at them by the individual if so.
Perhaps the most unforgettable moment of Mtawarira’s entire, already elongated career, of course, remains his youthful, one-man destruction job at the scrums on unsuspecting English tighthead Phil Vickery in the first Test of the 2009 series, fittingly at Kings Park.
The Boks won that vital opening encounter 26-21, and eventually the series 2-1.
Unless someone like long-time overseas-based Frans Steyn, currently 31, makes a dramatic, unexpected late-career comeback for South Africa, Mtawarira would be the lone member of the “Bok class of ‘09” to make the 2021 series cut for the Boks should he still be playing – and with suitably undimmed zest – at the highest level by then.
It is far from an impossible thought, when you consider that the series (keenly awaited, as ever, considering the infrequency of Lions tours to the relevant countries) should be wrapped up with Mtawarira still just short of his 36th birthday: the oldest Bok representative on record is Victor Matfield, who was 38 when he made his swansong appearance against Argentina in the bronze playoff at the 2015 World Cup.
Sceptical about the prospect? Maybe you should watch the video of Friday’s match again … Tendai Mtawarira looked anything but a waning force.