Tendai Mtawarira will play his 100th Test for the Springboks. The story I wrote for Independent Media’s weekend newspapers, in association with ASICS (SA) is tribute to the passion and hunger of Mtawarira to be a Springbok. It also documents the incredible struggles along the way.
This June is a very different one to the June of 2010, when Tendai Mtawarira was denied the opportunity to add to his 22 Test appearances for South Africa because of citizenship issues.
This June, Mtawarira will reach the pinnacle of his Springbok career. Back then, it seemed his Springbok career was over.
Mtawarira, despite being resident in South Africa, was not considered a national, and the government policy was that only nationals could represent South Africa.
It was, says Mtawarira, the darkest period of his life.
This June, eight years later, Mtawarira will become just the sixth Springbok to play 100 Tests. He will also historically be the first black Springbok player to 100 caps. It’s as much a testament to his desire and passion for the Springboks as it is to his natural rugby skills.
Mtawarira could have named his price at any European club in 2010. He could have left South Africa, bitter at the injustice of his Springbok career being ended because of government policy.
He could have made his fortune elsewhere, contributed to the success of an overseas club, and in time become a citizen of wherever he was playing.
Others did that.
Another Zimbabwean-born prop, Brian Mujati, suffered a similar fate. Mujati had played 10 Tests for the Springboks, but was told he wasn’t eligible because he wasn’t a national. Mujati signed to play overseas, and has enjoyed a brilliant club career.
Mtawarira refused to take the potentially more lucrative financial route. He explored every option to show his commitment to South Africa as his home.
He said at the time: “I am a South African at heart. I love this country. It has become my home. It is everything to me. Wearing the green and gold of the Springboks is a huge honour for me. That jersey is part of me. The green and gold flows in my blood.”
The French arrived in South Africa for the June three-Test series in 2010, but Mtawarira’s battle was more than rugby. He was excluded from the Springboks and there was talk of him being deported.
“It was my darkest time. It was also really hurtful,” is how Mtwarira described the controversy to the international media.
“I remember being emotional in front of my wife (Kuziva), my fiancée at that time, when the Springboks squad was announced and I wasn’t in it.
“I remember getting the call from (Saru president) Oregan Hoskins) to say they can’t pick me as they need to sort out my citizenship. I had to watch France play South Africa. I couldn’t even sit down because I wanted to be there with the guys.”
Mtawarira’s wife is also Zimbabwean, but his daughter Talumba and son Wangu were born in Durban, and Durban has always been their home.
Like so many migrants, his wife is also Zimbabwean, but his children only know South Africa as home.
Mtawarira, thanks to the intervention of the then-Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, resolved the issue and he was presented with his South African passport, which allowed him to again play for the Springboks.
The passport dramas aside, South Africa’s Shona Springbok also has had to battle a heart problem that at one stage threatened to end his career.
As one international media report stated: “Mtawarira understands the fight; he knows struggle!”
He also knows what he wants – and that was to make a contribution to South African society and to the well-being of Springbok rugby.
He thought he would be doing it as a loose forward when he first joined the Sharks Academy as an 18-year-old, but Sharks coach Dick Muir was blunt in his assessment of Mtawarira. He wasn’t going to make it as an international loose forward.
Muir felt Mtawarira had so much talent and all the attributes to be a loosehead prop, and encouraged the player to make the transition immediately.
Mtawarira admits he wasn’t initially keen, but in hindsight also acknowledges it was the best rugby decision of his career.
Muir, a backline specialist, is renowned for his innovative coaching, and Mtawarira’s career is the result of one man’s radical thinking and another man’s resolve as a response.
“It was definitely the best decision to change to the front row. I wasn’t up for the idea. I was very negative, but I’ve been fortunate to have some really good mentors in my life.
“A guy called Jeremy Thompson, who played for the Sharks as well, is one of my best friends; just a good guy who came alongside me as a youngster playing under-21s and really helped me out, helped me to keep a clear mind and not to just think one way.
“Dick said if I learnt the technique as quickly as possible, he’d have a spot for me in the Sharks team, so that was motivation enough for me to change position and go for it, big time.
“Balie Swart (the 1995 Springboks’ Rugby World Cup-winning tighthead prop) taught me everything I know about scrummaging.
“It was really tough, but I had guys like BJ Botha, Deon Carstens and John Smit who came alongside me and helped me a lot. And Bismarck (du Plessis) as well. They all spent a lot of time with me; they didn’t have to, but they did.”