Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - It
was another auspicious personal occasion … and Tendai Mtawarira put in the sort
of performance that thoroughly harked back to his more youthful heyday.
loosehead prop was as prominent and revved-up as any Sharks colleague as the
franchise produced their showing of the season to thrash the Lions 42-5 in a
Super Rugby derby at Emirates Airline Park on Friday.
He was forceful
at scrum-time and an especially irresistible ball-carrier on the damp night,
not averse to “bouncing” the odd opponent brave enough to try to thwart his stampede
wisely hauled off after almost 50 supremely industrious minutes with the game
largely sewn up by then and plenty of further fish to fry in the competition,
could hardly have wished for a more fitting ascension to most-capped South
African player in the competition with 157 appearances.
looked more like a fresh-limbed 25-year-old than the 33 he is, and it was the
sort of showing to raise interesting, overwhelmingly positive questions about
his ongoing service to both the Sharks (he is a rare “one team” man in a
first-class respect) and Springboks.
Does he look
like a player consciously closing in on retirement? While Mtawarira is a
legendarily unassuming character not renowned for making big statements or
revealing his innermost thoughts too often, my own sense remains no, not yet.
Cups so often signalling stand-downs from Test rugby - or more broadly - by
heavyweight figures, there will be some, understandable fears that he may be
among Bok players for whom Japan toward the end of the year is a swansong
tournament; he will have moved on to 34 by then.
that possibility off, of course.
But if I
were high up in the Sharks hierarchy, I know I would already be doing plenty to
try to coax a couple more seasons (yes, 2020 and perhaps even 2021) out of the
extraordinarily loyal character. If so, continued deployment for the national
cause also seems a feasible enough option.
is a model professional: he must be a wonderful tonic, a bastion of
assuredness, for the Sharks dressing room in a domestic climate where,
increasingly, juniorization and inexperience are the orders of the day as more
and more players from wide-ranging levels of rugby wisdom succumb to the
temptation of lucrative overseas club contracts.
Crusaders could hang onto the services of their own enormously valued custodian
of the No 1 jersey, Wyatt Crockett, for 13 seasons between 2006 and 2018 (and
to well beyond his 35th birthday, plus a tournament-wide caps record
of 202), then why not the Sharks with Mtawarira, currently in his own 13th
campaign and a man two and a half years younger than his former All Blacks
reason why this member of the elite Bok “100 caps-plus” club possibly has the
potential to keep going influentially for a couple more seasons is his specific
devotion to the Sharks’ cause: he is not one of those players who try to get
the best of both worlds by, say, spending part of the supposed off-season
playing rugby in Japan or in an increasingly fashionable short-term stint in
England or France.
formidable injury-related catalogues often indicate, such spells can have a
harmful, cumulative effect on match overload, fatigue and the almost inevitable
result of undesirable periods on the side-lines.
largely sidesteps such issues by having a proper few weeks of time away from
the game at the height of summer, which must increase his chances of notable
longevity in rugby.
When I spoke
in the middle of last year to Gary Gold, one of the coaches who has had a
meaningful impact on the Zimbabwean-born player’s career both in Durban and
with the Springboks, he said he believed Mtawarira was “certainly in good
enough shape, both physically and mentally, to go on for a year or two more”.
scenario potentially takes the muscular front-ranker to the tantalising cusp of
another, extremely poignant milestone: the possibility of representing the Boks
in the 2021 series against the British and Irish Lions, the first between them
in a dozen years and a highly unusual second crack at them by the individual if
most unforgettable moment of Mtawarira’s entire, already elongated career, of
course, remains his youthful, one-man destruction job at the scrums on
unsuspecting English tighthead Phil Vickery in the first Test of the 2009
series, fittingly at Kings Park.
The Boks won
that vital opening encounter 26-21, and eventually the series 2-1.
someone like long-time overseas-based Frans Steyn, currently 31, makes a
dramatic, unexpected late-career comeback for South Africa, Mtawarira would be
the lone member of the “Bok class of ‘09” to make the 2021 series cut for the
Boks should he still be playing - and with suitably undimmed zest - at the
highest level by then.
It is far
from an impossible thought, when you consider that the series (keenly awaited,
as ever, considering the infrequency of Lions tours to the relevant countries) should
be wrapped up with Mtawarira still just short of his 36th birthday:
the oldest Bok representative on record is Victor Matfield, who was 38 when he
made his swansong appearance against Argentina in the bronze playoff at the
2015 World Cup.
about the prospect? Maybe you should watch the video of Friday’s match again …
Tendai Mtawarira looked anything but a waning force.
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