From Zimbabwean schoolboy to Bok prop – Brian Mujati must be pinching himself.
There’s no disputing that he was the form South African tighthead in the Super 14, although Mujati would disagree that he was so integral to his team. He points to the other seven blokes around him at the Stormers, not to mention the other seven behind the pack and the seven on the bench.
‘Sure, I have improved, but it’s a work in progress,’ he says. He doesn’t quite come out with the ‘aw, shucks’ routine, but he’s not
Though at 24 he is still very young for a tighthead, Mujati’s path to Stormers’ anchorman has been somewhat zigzag.
There was no stellar but steady rise from prominent South African rugby-playing school via Craven Week to age-group representation. Instead, there was the prominent Zimbabwe rugby-playing school (Peterhouse), Zim Craven Week … and then the lean times.
Mujati left Zimbabwe after matriculating in 2002, determined to make a career out of rugby.
‘It was during Craven Week that I realised I wasn’t too shabby as a player,’ he says. ‘I held my own against some powerful South Africans in the set phases even though as a team we were getting caned. I was lucky going to Peterhouse, though, as it has a long and traditional rugby-playing history. Coaching is still quite established there, so I had a good foundation. But after school …’ his voice trails off. ‘I can’t speak for others, but growing up in Zim you don’t think of playing there. I knew I had to come to SA.’
Mujati duly got to Johannesburg on a student visa and debuted for the Lions U21s. He played a few Vodacom Cup games, then a couple in the Currie Cup. Last year he graduated to the Super 14 side following a spate of injuries, and he played the entire season. He had been given a gap and he grabbed it. It should have been a dream year careerwise, but it ended in acrimony when he was accused of jumping ship during the Currie Cup. He disputes this, saying his student visa had expired, which made his contract null and void. The resentment from Ellis Park still simmers, however, and there was much talk at the beginning of the season of lawyers and courts.
His signing with the Stormers this year only increased the rumblings from Gauteng. ‘Look, I didn’t feel valued at the Lions,’ he says. ‘There wasn’t any major blowout – more like a series of little incidents. Nothing racial, if that’s what people are thinking. I just didn’t fit into their set-up, that’s all.’
He has very much fitted into the set-up in the Mother City. ‘I like Cape Town. I like the people and the lifestyle. I like the Stormers’ organisation and I like Rassie [Erasmus, the head coach]. I like the way he coaches. He’s very chilled.’
Tighthead is renowned as the most demanding position in rugby, but Mujati seems to have taken to it like a natural.
‘I’ve been lucky that I’ve only played prop my whole life,’ he says. ‘A lot of guys started out playing flank or hooker and then moved to prop, but for me it was only about tighthead. From the first I’ve loved the grunt and groan of the position. The scrumming, the mauling, the one-on-one with the opposition loosehead – that’s what gets me going. No-one sees that in the crowd, but I dig it.’
South African rugby digs it too.
By Patrick Farrell
This article first appeared in the June issue of SA Rugby magazine.