LONDON — In line with the broader Springbok pattern at the World Cup, seasoned loosehead prop Tendai Mtawarira seems to be warming menacingly to the occasion.
His cult following among Bok supporters certainly acknowledged as much last Sunday morning when he earned a particularly rousing, echoing chant of “Beeeeast” as the briefly cordoned-off squad filed past the rest of we riff-raff at Newcastle Central Station en route over the pedestrian bridge to their part of the platform for the (first-class) train passage back down south to Kings Cross.
He gave a bashful wave of acknowledgement to the many green and gold-clad enthusiasts either travelling on the same train or others London-bound soon afterwards.
At St James’ Park, the deep-voiced, but usually reserved and unassuming Mtawarira had delivered easily his most rousing of three appearances — all starts —at the tournament thus far.
The long-time Sharks favourite (30), under-delivered like so many team-mates did in the shock, pool-opening 34-32 defeat to Japan in Brighton.
He then showed good signs of stabilising to normal personal standards against Samoa, even after a bit of early difficulty at scrum-time from the colossal tighthead Census Johnston.
But he was fire and brimstone from the start to his own finish —he got a deserved call-off on the hour mark after a busy shift, allowing for the fresh legs of Trevor Nyakane — against Scotland.
In earning his 71st cap in Newcastle, the Zimbabwean-born front-ranker provided enormous leg-drive and upper-body muscle to some epic Bok rolling mauls, smashed the ball up regularly, and of even greater importance, got the better of his Loeriesfontein-born Scottish rival at the set-pieces, WP Nel.
That particular one-on-one was always going to be a source of great media interest, given their prior scraps at domestic level when Nel was still on the Cheetahs’ books at Super Rugby and Currie Cup level.
You could sense at a media briefing attended by Mtawarira before the Scotland game that some journalists were almost brave enough to suggest he had also had some tough prior days at the office against the low-centre-of-gravity Nel.\
One chose to ask, in a roundabout way: “Could you say you had things all your own way in your previous battles with him?”
The Beast gave a diplomatic but honest answer: “No, definitely not.”
But you also picked up the distinct impression that Mtawarira was only too aware the suggestion was in the air that Nel could prove a handful to him anew at St James’ Park.
So when the teams ran out for the hugely atmospheric occasion on Saturday, the Bok No 1 positively oozed intent and no-nonsense body language, even if he may never again quite manage the level of spectacular destruction and mastery he enjoyed over poor Phil Vickery in that memorable Lions Test of 2009.
If anything, he may have regretted that there weren’t more scrums on the day, given the strength of some of the “left shoulders” he engineered against his tighthead opponent at the weekend.
So pumped up was Mtawarira for the full hour he contributed that at one stage he even gave an unusually acidic, close-up verbal send-off to Scottish skipper and scrumhalf Greig Laidlaw when he was yellow-carded for tackling a flying Bryan Habana without the ball after the wing had chipped it ahead and a possible try opportunity beckoned for the Bok cause.
On the BBC’s legendary “Match of the Day” English Premiership football highlights show on Sunday night, pundit and former England striker Alan Shearer spoke of “liking him when he’s got his angry head on” in reference to Everton’s striker Romelu Lukaku, scorer of the equaliser in the drawn Merseyside derby with Liverpool.
Bok enthusiasts, similarly, must enjoy Tendai Nihal Mtawarira when there’s a bee buzzing in his rugby union bonnet.
One or two more such occasions at the World Cup could come in particularly useful. — Online