Quiet achiever

GAVIN MORTIMER, writing in SA Rugby magazine, discovers that while Brian Mujati has excelled for the Northampton Saints, he doesn’t want to talk about it.

‘I’m not a front-page kind of guy, I’m quite happy to stand back,’ said Brian Mujati on 1 June 2008. The 23-year-old prop was speaking ahead of his impending Test debut against Wales, telling a reporter from the Sunday Times about his journey from the Old Hararians club to the Springboks. On being compared to fellow Zimbabwean-born prop, Tendai Mtawarira, Mujati laughed and said he disliked attention as much as the Beast loved it. ‘It must be a nightmare!’ he replied, when asked if he didn’t secretly crave fame.

Two days later Mujati’s ‘nightmare’ became reality and he found himself the centre of a press furore. A London-based newspaper called The Zimbabwean accused Joseph Mujati – Brian’s father – of having grabbed the Inyazura farm of Marthinus ‘Tienie’ Martin five years earlier. The writer was at pains to point out that Brian was not involved, but the damage had been done.

‘This is a shabby attempt to smear the name of a Springbok rugby player on what should be one of the most memorable days of his life,’ raged Andy Colquhoun, Saru strategic communications manager, in response to the story. ‘There are no allegations against Brian, and an attempt to visit the alleged sins of a father on to a son is beneath contempt, however it may be dressed up.’

Though Martin was clearly still angry by the memory of the day he was forcibly evicted from his farm, he stressed his support for Brian: ‘I don’t want to mess the youngster’s career up,’ he told the newspaper.

It was an awful way in which to make a Test debut, and though the Boks beat Wales 43-17, the one area they struggled was the scrum, where Mujati endured a torrid afternoon.

‘It was tough for Brian,’ said Robbie Kempson later. ‘Not only was he making his Test debut, but he was up against an experienced opponent in Gethin Jenkins. The story about his dad and the farm in Zimbabwe may also have affected him … I don’t think there is anything technically wrong with him … so I don’t think he deserves to be dropped.’

But he was, and though he remained in the Springbok squad, Mujati made just one more start before earning the last of 12 caps as a replacement at Twickenham in November 2008.

Mujati was scarred by the experience, not just of being cast into the international wilderness by the Springboks, but also by the newspaper story that dragged him into a scandal of which he had no part. The upshot of the rumpus was that in May 2009 Mujati left southern Africa for England to join the Northampton Saints on a two-year contract, taking with him a burning mistrust of the media that continues to this day.

When contacted by SA Rugby magazine, Northampton refused to grant an interview on the grounds that ‘Mujati doesn’t do them because of something that was written in South Africa’. Sorry, Brian doesn’t want to talk.

It’s a shame because Mujati has been in outstanding form for Northampton this season, a vital member of a side that is challenging for honours in the English Premiership and the European Cup. If Peter de Villiers’s spies are doing their job they should be sending back glowing reports on the 26-year-old tighthead.

Fortunately there are people only too happy to talk on Mujati’s behalf, even Euan Murray, the Scotland and British & Irish Lions prop who lost his place to Mujati in the Northampton side earlier in the season. Murray is a Christian whose beliefs preclude him from playing on Sundays, and unfortunately seven of Northampton’s first 17 matches of the season fell on the Sabbath, giving Mujati plenty of opportunity to showcase his talent. Which he did to such an extent that in December Murray left Northampton for Newcastle.

‘Brian started the first game of the season because it was a Sunday and he  played very well,’ says Murray, adding: ‘He’s a good scrummager.’

In the same month that Murray left the club, Mujati extended his contract at Northampton by two years, prompting director of rugby Jim Mallender to say: ‘Brian has shown he has what it takes to compete at the top end of the Premiership. He has improved a lot as a player over the past year and his performances reflect the work he has put in. But he is still a young man and we believe he has his best years in front of him.’

One of Mujati’s team-mates in England is Bruce Reihana, the former All Blacks utility back, who arrived at Northampton in 2002 and is now their longest-serving player.

‘Brian’s a great team man,’ he says of the South African. ‘A strong silent type is quite a good way to describe him but when he’s got something to say in team meetings, he’ll speak his mind. He’s a softly-spoken guy but he’s humorous too, and likes to kick back when the moment’s right. He’s a good man to talk to; not much seems to faze him, and he’s very knowledgeable about the game.’

Reihana cheerfully admits that being a back he’s not in a position to assess Mujati’s scrummaging prowess but he can see in the club’s fitness testing how strong he is.

‘Brian loves his weights and he’s certainly improved in the two years he’s been here. He’s very strong, in the legs and the upper body, and is just a very compact guy.’

Someone well placed to run the rule over Mujati’s ability in the set piece is David Barnes, Bath’s veteran loosehead prop, who has spent the past 15 years in the top flight of English rugby.

‘I’ve played against Brian a couple of times this season and I would argue that he is the dominant tighthead in the Premiership,’ says Barnes. ‘When he came to England a couple of seasons ago I think there were questions over his technique, but he’s improved enormously under the coaching of Dorian West [the former England hooker who’s  now the forwards coach at Northampton]. He causes problems for looseheads in every game because his technique is so good.’

Barnes says what makes Mujati such a formidable opponent is his physique.

‘He doesn’t have the usual prop’s body, if I can put it that way! Unlike some of us he’s in very good shape and doesn’t carry much fat. He’s also a little bit shorter than most of us [1.80m and 118kg] so he’s able to get in excellent positions and make life very hard. There’s no doubt he’s the most destructive scrummager I’ve played against this season, and I think he’s definitely one of the reasons why Northampton have the strongest scrum in the Premiership. Some props just sit there and use their weight but Brian uses his power and strength to drive you back and hurt you.’

Mujati no doubt enjoys the anonymity of living in England and the freedom to walk down the road without being recognised, but his time in the UK hasn’t been entirely without controversy. The front rower has an unfortunate knack of attracting unwanted attention, a trait that emerged even before the ruckus over his father.

Having come to prominence in 2002 playing for Zimbabwe Schools at Craven Week, Mujati was picked up by the Golden Lions in 2003. Then in October 2007 he joined the Stormers and Western Province on a two-year contract after an acrimonious falling out with the Lions in which Mujati claimed at the time: ‘I was never treated very well … I felt that there were a lot of things they could have done to make it better but they chose not to. So I chose to move.’

The Lions responded by trying to hold Mujati to his contract and in the end South Africa’s rugby judicial committee had to intervene, ruling in February 2008 that the Zimbabwean was free to play for the Stormers.

Then in October 2009 Mujati was involved in a bizarre incident while playing for Northampton against French club Perpignan in the European Cup. Having taken a blow to the head (later diagnosed as concussion), Mujati pushed referee Nigel Owens out of the way as he prepared to enter a ruck.

Even though the disciplinary committee accepted the fact Mujati was dazed at the time of the indiscretion, he was still banned for six weeks.

Northampton were livid with the ban, as they were six months later when they discovered that Mujati had received an approach from Saracens, then coached by Brendan Venter.

‘I know one of our players has had a phone call from one of their players asking if he wants to leave to go to Saracens,’ fumed Jim Mallinder, adding: ‘And when players like that are in contract it is disappointing. If that is the way they want to do their business then that’s up to them.’

So what are the chances of Mujati receiving a more welcome call in the coming months, one from Peter de Villiers inviting him to relaunch his Springbok career? He can’t be ignored on the grounds that he plays his rugby overseas; after all, Frans Steyn was selected last November and he plays in France.

Like many front rowers he’s improved with age and the Mujati of 2011 is a different tighthead to the one of 2008. Power, strength, technique, he’s got the lot and above all, he has the desire to erase the nightmare of 2008. He might not be a front-page kind of guy but given the chance, Brian Mujati could make a splash on the back pages. Just don’t expect him to talk about it …

– This article first appeared in the April issue of SA Rugby magazine.

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