CAPE TOWN. — There are few sadder sights than a punch-drunk, once great boxer effectively turning late-career palooka, lurching from one career-twilight pay cheque to another while lamentably never recapturing past glories.
Tendai Mtawarira’s sport of choice is a little different, of course, though it contains its own forms of unmistakable physical brutality and punishment.
But a rugby union version of a palooka? The Beast?
That was simply not going to happen . . . and clearly especially not if the highly popular, yet limelight-shy loosehead prop was going to have anything to do with it.
The 34-year-old Zimbabwe-born Mtawarira has timed his now-confirmed retirement from the international arena to a tee, reserving perhaps his most consistently champagne performances — yes, first-class career-long — for the Springboks’ glorious 2019 Rugby World Cup campaign.
He is so obviously and inspiringly the taste that’s stood the test of time, with apologies to any theft of advertising catch-line from a well-known South African national beer brand and sometimes Bok sponsor.
While there had been 10 earlier caps to his name, there’s a case for arguing that — although this gentleman of his trade would hardly, specifically have wished it — Mtawarira really launched his career as a global Test icon in 2009.
A spectacular set-piece demolition job on one ageing English tighthead, Phil Vickery and ended it by handing out far from dissimilar trauma to another, the 32-year-old necessarily long-deployed substitute Dan Cole, in last Saturday’s epic Rugby World Cup final. It was as clear-cut a demonstration as you could wish for of the longevity — yes, there were one or two more moderate periods for him in collectively “difficult” Bok years — of his excellence to the green and gold cause.
Once he had finally, so fittingly bagged a World Cup winner’s medal at his third time of trying a few days ago, just how difficult was it for him to pull the plug on his dozen-year Springbok career?
Only he may really know; it is not as though he was exactly looking ripe for quitting.
It was quite the opposite. He has looked a massively rejuvenated figure in 2019.
Still in wonderful physical condition (something that he has maintained for much of his rugby life, ensuring remarkably few significant injuries), Mtawarira could quite feasibly have campaigned onward for at least another two years . . . or arguably even more.
In a position where players customarily improve with age, at least to a reasonable point, that would have taken him to a rare, full repeat cycle of a Lions visit; they are due here in 2021 for three succulent Tests.
Almost automatically, such a development would have seen him comfortably move ahead of Victor Matfield (127) as South Africa’s most capped international: instead he ends just 10 short, with 117 caps, of which a lofty 102 – or 87.17 percent — were starts.
He also bows out as the fifth most capped prop in world rugby, eclipsed only by Welshman Gethin Jenkins (134), Italian tighthead icon Martin Castrogiovanni and England’s Jason Leonard (both 119) and All Blacks’ stalwart Tony Woodcock (118).
All of them had slightly longer Test career spans, calendar-wise, though only Mtawarira and Woodcock (from RWC 2015) can claim to have taken their leave from the landscape specifically as World Cup title-winners — as good as it gets.
At least as things stand, and unless he plans a chapter-closing club stint in lucrative northern climes — something he would wholeheartedly deserve, if so — he boasts the amazing distinction of a first-class representation list that is eye-catchingly short: South Africa, Sharks, and occasional duty for the Barbarians. If that doesn’t scream “dream employee”, then what does?
So long Tendai, the gentle giant who went out in such dazzling, peak-of-his-game style.
It may only stiffen his legacy. — Sport24