Cape Town - Whether he opts to continue playing rugby at its loftiest level beyond the 2019 Rugby World Cup will be the key determinant in Tendai Mtawarira’s ascent to even further, massively illustrious personal landmarks.
Mtawarira becomes the sixth Springbok - plus first black African and specialist prop - to bring up 100 Tests when he tackles England in the second clash at Bloemfontein on Saturday.
But if he does remain available for Springbok service into the 2020 season and is still among the very best loose-heads in the country, the 32-year-old “Beast” should be in with a real crack at not only overhauling Victor Matfield (127) as most capped Springbok in history, but also have an outside chance of becoming the most decorated international prop forward of all time.
That landmark is held by Gethin Jenkins, the now 37-year-old Wales front-ranker.
Jenkins still hasn’t officially hung up his boots, although he last played for the Welsh against the Boks in Cardiff in November 2016, so it can probably be safely assumed his Test days are over after a staggering tally of 134 caps (including five for the British and Irish Lions).
But he is nevertheless a walking reminder of the longevity that is possible among players even in the taxing heart of rugby’s boiler room.
The Welshman lies joint-fourth overall with Italy’s veteran No 8 Sergio Parisse for most capped Test players in any position (New Zealand loose forward legend Richie McCaw still rules the all-time roost on 148 caps).
Proof of some props’ durability at the highest tier is that not far behind Jenkins for total appearances, both 119, come England’s Jason Leonard, who only quit at around 35 and a half, and Italy’s Martin Castrogiovanni (roughly 34 and a half when he rode off into the Test sunset).
When he joins another Welshman, Adam Jones, on 100 caps on Saturday, Mtawarira will become joint-seventh most capped prop ever.
Others currently above him are Tony Woodcock (NZ, 118), John Hayes (Ireland, 107) and Andrea Lo Cicero (Italy, 103).
All bar Jenkins have retired from all competition.
Once Mtawarira has got the emotional 100th appearance out of the way, the modest, unassuming Sharks stalwart should shift onward to around 110 or 111 caps by the end of this year if he plays match-day roles in the remainder of the England series, the Rugby Championship (six matches) and the Bok end-of-year tour (four matches).
Then it is World Cup year, albeit that as things stand the Boks have a lean roster ahead of the event itself, as the Rugby Championship will revert to a single-round formula (three games) and there is no June Test window.
But if the Boks get, say, to the RWC semis, that could mean a further nine or so caps for Mtawarira … perhaps stretching him to around the 120-mark by year’s end.
Then he really is in breathing distance of Matfield, as one further international season in 2020 (he’d start it aged a far from fantasy-like 34) should see him leapfrog the lineout maestro.
Bryan Habana, the second most capped Springbok, recently retired from all rugby having fallen only three caps short (124) of Matfield.
Of course all this is mere speculation, given the broad vagaries of sport.
But at least one educated rugby personality shares the sentiment that Mtawarira, who seldom picks up significant injuries and traditionally keeps himself very well-conditioned, could stretch his legacy a fair bit further.
Gary Gold, currently head coach of the United States, oversaw the player at both Springbok level, while assistant coach in a highly productive period for the national team and Mtawarira himself, and later as Sharks director of rugby.
Asked by Sport24 whether he felt “Beast” might threaten Matfield’s milestone, at least, he replied: “Tough one … but it is, of course, possible. If he is in the mix up until and then including RWC (2019), then most definitely.
“I think Rassie (Erasmus) really likes (Steven) Kitshoff, but Beast has been in really good form: Rassie may well keep him in the mix.
“In my opinion, he is certainly in good enough shape physically and mentally to go on for a year or two more, no doubt, and that will definitely make him the most capped Bok.”
Gold’s observation about the younger Kitshoff (26) is far from irrelevant, as the Stormers-based powerhouse keeps excelling in an impact factor whenever he replaces the seasoned Mtawarira in the second half of Tests.
He is clearly hell-bent, and understandably so, on eventually leapfrogging Mtawarira to the coveted No 1 jersey, thus dramatically altering his current, still heavy percentage (92) of Test appearances as a substitute.
Whether the experienced incumbent, who by stark contrast has started as many 90 off his 99 Tests in green and gold, could adapt to an impact role himself - that is, a switching of roles with Kitshoff - may also become an influencer in Mtawarira’s onward push to further statistical glory ...
Willie le Roux, 14 S'bu Nkosi, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 Damian de Allende, 11
Aphiwe Dyantyi, 10 Handre Pollard, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7
Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Siya Kolisi (captain), 5 Franco Mostert, 4 RG
Snyman, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 Tendai Mtawarira
16 Akker van der Merwe, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Thomas du Toit, 19
Jean-Luc du Preez, 20 Sikhumbuzo Notshe, 21 Ivan van Zyl, 22 Jesse
Kriel, 23 Warrick Gelant
Daly, 14 Jonny May, 13 Henry Slade, 12 Owen Farrell (captain), 11 Mike
Brown, 10 George Ford, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Tom Curry, 6
Brad Shields, 5 Maro Itoje, 4 Joe Launchbury, 3 Kyle Sinckler, 2 Jamie
George, 1 Mako Vunipola
Substitutes: 16 Luke Cowan-Dickie, 17 Joe
Marler, 18 Harry Williams, 19 Mark Wilson, 20 Nathan Hughes, 21 Ben
Spencer, 22 Danny Cipriani, 23 Denny Solomona
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