Cape Town - A moment completely unrelated to the fanfare around his 100th Test appearance encapsulated the national treasure who is Tendai Mtawarira on Saturday.
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On a day dripping with emotion both for him and an appreciative public in Bloemfontein, as he became the sixth Springbok to reach the three-figure mark in caps and only second in a winning cause on the day, his own match was already over when he produced probably his most animated gesture of the big occasion.
The ever-popular, yet publicly bashful “Beast” had been substituted for Steven Kitshoff in the 44th minute … raising the odd eyebrow for how early it was in the second half, considering his own typically wholehearted, excellent shift to that point.
It seemed there was substantially more petrol in Mtawarira’s tank, but new coach Rassie Erasmus has also been pretty decisive and consistent so far in his confidence in his bench resources to help turn screws on opponents – his subs have overwhelmingly not let him down over the course of the victorious first two Tests against England.
Always hailed as a meticulous planner, Erasmus also monitors workloads diligently and is so clearly already thinking further down the line or to bigger pictures when he makes certain strategic decisions in the interests of collective zest and freshness.
Some sportspeople throw an obvious strop – or at least a more subtle, mini version of that – when hauled off the park.
Completely as per norm, Mtawarira took his subbing with uncomplaining grace, whatever he may have been feeling inside.
What’s more, just five minutes later, a healthy hint of justification for the coach simultaneously replacing both starting props (Mtawarira and a notably less convincing Frans Malherbe), came to the fore.
The Boks produced a monster scrum effort near the England try-line, with Kitshoff “popping” his direct rival in the set-piece: referee Romain Poite had little hesitation in running to the posts to award a penalty try as the scrum went to ground with South Africa on the brink of rumbling over the whitewash anyway.
Television cameras quickly turned to the row of pitch-side Bok substitutes and already-subbed personnel … where the man leading the adulation was none other than the veteran Mtawarira.
Presumably at least reasonably out of puff after his own industry to the cause beforehand, he nevertheless jumped spontaneously up and down with glee – as if a 10-year-old who had just won candyfloss for his success at the funfair coconut shy – and that despite having missed by a whisker being part of the major turning point in the contest.
Broader cause before self: it has been the exemplary story of Mtawarira’s professional rugby life, his rarely economical list of major teams (Sharks, Springboks) only bearing out his deep sense of loyalty.
It was also a compelling reason for the South African rugby public to only bolster further their affection for a 32-year-old demonstrating what seems a stiffening, rather than receding, appetite for premier-level rugby.
He and SA Rugby earned a minor, half-jocular brickbat in at least one major Sunday newspaper for the fact that the player reportedly gave only one interview - for SuperSport - in the immediate lead-up week to his ton-up celebration.
In principle that could not substantially be faulted.
Then again, anyone who has had media dealings with the gentle, though profoundly deep-voiced giant, will also be aware that he is genuinely shy and sometimes awkward - while never being anything less than courteous and pleasant – in such situations.
Whenever massed camera lights flash in unison in front of him, you can almost sense Mtawarira wishing to sink his head into one of his generous shoulders, embarrassed and bemused by all the fuss.
He is so evidently most at peace, at least when it comes to his salaried duties, somewhere deep within the ranks of his squad-mates, and quite happy and relieved for more flamboyant or more obviously superstar players (usually not props, let’s face it) to soak up the limelight.
The esteem in which he is held among his Bok colleagues, regardless of franchise location or position on the field, was only borne out in the pitch-side scenes after he had been awarded his gold cap for the “century”, with an ongoing clamour by many of them for selfies with the gnarly old warrior.
He will be glad now, I’m pretty sure, that the hoo-ha, so fitting though it was, around him is over.
Challenging though he would have found some aspects of it, the way his iconic date on Saturday panned out just made so many of us so chuffed for Beast …
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