Tenderness and the Beast

Review: Archie Henderson

Beast, by Tendai Mtawarira with Andy Capostagno (Macmillan)

Even for those who have played rugby over the years, the front row is the place to avoid. It’s where the grunts of the game live, and terrible stories are told at beer-drinking sessions in the clubhouse about it after games. 

The front row is the front line; it’s where opponents literally knock heads. Once a scrum is set, the exponents on both sides – from the left, the loosehead prop, the hooker and the tighthead – engage in activities that the referee cannot see, not even the television match official with his probing cameras. Punches can be thrown, ears can be bitten, testicles can be kicked, thumbs can be broken. And all of it out of sight.

But once the game is over, and the festivities of the clubhouse begin, old enemies become friends over a beer or 10 and can be found in a corner discussing techniques of front-row play, strengths and weaknesses, and also its dark arts which are seldom shared with the other 12 players in the team.

Tendai Mtawarira, better known throughout the rugby world as Beast, is part of this exclusive club. The Beast, whose name is chanted in unison by crowds whenever he gets the ball, was not always a member. Indeed, he was a very average outsider when he first arrived as a kid from Zimbabwe to play for the Sharks. How he then became a world-class loosehead prop is the story told by Andy Capostagno, our best rugby commentator on TV and one of the game’s finest writers.

Capostagno tells it with a tenderness that is the complete antithesis of the front-row crowd, but after reading it you will sense that same tenderness in Tendai. He might be a beast on the field, but he’s a gentle soul once the final whistle has sounded. And he’s something of a monarchist: watch him thank Prince Harry on behalf of the team in the Springbok dressing-room after the World Cup victory in Yokohama last November. There is a devotion in the message he passes on to the prince for his wife, the duchess, and their little boy. There is also a devotion to his own family and to the game which turned around his fortunes.

Beast is a heartwarming story of a young boy from Harare who first talked himself into one of Zimbabwe’s most exclusive schools, Peterhouse, and then into the Sharks rugby academy in Durban. Mtawarira, once he completed his O-levels, sets off to the south by bus, all the way from Harare, via the frontier chaos of Mussina on the South African border, to Durban where he has since made his life.

He arrived as a rugby player of limited talent, but huge potential. It took Sharks coach Dick Muir a few months to realise that this kid was never going to make it as a flanker or a lock and persuaded him to enter those halls of the front row. The Beast never looked back. He was taught its arts, not all of them dark, by two of the best, BJ Botha and Bismarck du Plessis, both Springboks. He was a quick learner, as Capostagno points out, and was soon the first choice for the Sharks and soon afterwards, for the Boks. It was with Du Plessis (“Bizzy” to the Beast) and Bizzy’s brother Jannie, the surgeon, that the Beast formed a formidable front row for the Sharks and the Boks.

There is also a shameful period of his rugby life when the ANC, in full xenophobic mode, tried to stop the Beast’s Springbok rugby career in its tracks. The player was rescued by the intervention of Oregan Hoskins, then president of SA Rugby, but the action remains a blot on South Africa’s ruling mob.

The Beast retired from international rugby after the Springboks’ World Cup triumph over England, in which he played such a crucial part, but he will continue to play for the Sharks in the upcoming season. We will still hear the roar “Beast!” for a few more matches. We can still enjoy his presence on the field and his story off it with this book, which is a well-deserved, and well-told, accolade.

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