Cape Town – How many times did you hear the crowd chant
“Beeeeeast!” at Patersons Stadium in Perth on Saturday?
GALLERY: Rugby Championship - Oz v Boks
Whether at home or abroad, and often uttered by both friend
and foe in the stands, it is normally a trusty indicator of popular loosehead
prop Tendai Mtawarira’s fire-and-brimstone involvement in open play.
Correct me if I am wrong, Western Australians and South
African expats there, but from the television transmission it seemed apparent
that the big fellow received noticeably little such adulation in the Castle
Rugby Championship match.
South Africa were beaten 26-19 by mediocre Australia -- severely
denting their already long-shot title hopes -- and in another imperfect,
stilted exhibition from the Springboks, Mtawarira was among several of the
relatively senior personnel to perform well below expectation.
This was arguably even the Sharks star’s worst of his 38
internationals thus far, as a rare yellow card for crudely obstructing Kurtley
Beale off the ball as the Wallaby tried to spark a first half counter-attack
only capped his depressing, oddly lacklustre outing.
He was largely anonymous in ball-carrying – usually a role
he performs with serious relish – and not even able to get a proper scrumming
handle on Aussie tighthead rival Ben Alexander, who had an unlikely field day
in a general context, to make matters worse.
If singling out Mtawarira may seem unfair – other seasoned
customers like captain Jean de Villiers, co-prop Jannie du Plessis and Morne
Steyn were pretty wretched in Perth too – it is done primarily because “Beast”
is more customarily one of the world-class elements in a rebuilding and
injury-hit Bok side currently fielding glaringly few such global icons.
At 27, the Harare-born front-ranker ought to be approaching
the prime of his professional rugby life, but apart from some early promise in
the England series in June, his Test year under the new Heyneke Meyer regime
has been nothing to write home about thus far.
Certainly those halcyon days of turning the crusty Phil
Vickery to mash and gravy in the 2009 British and Irish Lions tour seem a
particularly distant memory at present.
Getting Mtawarira’s mojo back in time for the ominous
challenge of the All Blacks in Dunedin on Saturday is just one of the
mushrooming list of tasks facing coach Meyer over the next few days.
He is exactly the sort of player whose dynamic surges and
potentially destructive scrummaging, when he really puts his mind to it, can be
catalysts for an infectious sense of well-being throughout the Bok ranks.
So what are the chances of it happening?
I would suggest that if Mtawarira does somehow manage to
turn things around from his plodding Perth display, it will have to occur on
reserve batteries – because the 116kg unit may well be among several Sharks
players in the national set-up whose minds may be willing but bodies not quite
able to muster full capability at present.
The Durban-based franchise, let’s not forget, went further
than any other South African side in the latest, longest ever Super Rugby
campaign and players like Mtawarira, Du Plessis, Marcell Coetzee and Willem
Alberts have undergone an extraordinary criss-crossing of time zones.
There was all that near-weekly yo-yoing between continents
in the knockout stages of that competition, and then not terribly long
afterwards they were travelling the “other” way on the globe to Mendoza for
green-and-gold commitments before another bodyclock-wrecking passage back to
Medical people will affirm very spiritedly that all this has
a cumulative, detrimental effect.
But there may be an additional reason for the decline of
Mtawarira, who traditionally has not battled for enthusiasm in the Bok jersey:
a conspicuous lack of competition for his specialist loosehead spot.
The behemoth Coenie Oosthuizen would probably be pushing
hard had he not fallen prey to long-term injury himself (he is apparently due
back fairly soon, encouragingly) but current “back-up” in the Test squad Dean
Greyling of the Blue Bulls, for all his own ball-carrying strength, is yet to
convince at the top flight at scrum-time.
So either consciously or subconsciously, Mtawarira seems to
be on a relatively easy ticket right now.
Is there a case, perhaps, for a gentle nudge to the amiable
fellow, reminding him that in the midst of the French league – just as Bakkies
Botha has been placed on standby from it for the Boks – lurks a certain,
undoubtedly pedigreed Gurthro Steenkamp?
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