Tendai 'Beast' Mtawarira won a Lions series (2009) and a World Cup (2019) with South Africa in a glittering career
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Tendai ‘Beast’ Mtawarira gave a chuckle when he heard Warren Gatland’s comments that the Lions had “dented South Africa’s ego” by gaining dominance at the set piece during the 17-13 defeat by South Africa ‘A’ last week.
“Yeah, I don’t think that is the right route to go, eh?” he says. “I would advise against it because he might just set off a bomb! We tend to respond when there is criticism like that or negative comments.
“I guess he is playing the old mental game and trying to get in our heads, but I think he should tread carefully.”
The exchange brought back memories of the Beast’s mindset going into the first Test against the Lions in Durban 12 years ago. He was a raw, 23-year-old loosehead then as part of a makeshift front row going head to head with the hugely experienced Phil Vickery.
“The talk from the Lions was that we had a very inexperienced front row," he adds. "Bismarck du Plessis was also young while John Smit was playing out of position. So they looked at us as an opportunity. We took that to heart and worked tirelessly on scrums in training. When we hit the first game, we were ready for them.
“I remember running onto the field, you know, in front of my own crowd, you know, on seeing a sea of red in the British eyes, lions fans came out in numbers, and it felt like an away game, but the atmosphere was electric and I was hugely energised.”
What happened next was one of the most iconic moments of his career and a rare low point in Vickery’s illustrious career. By 45 minutes he had been replaced as the Lions scrum was destroyed and the Springboks had gained a momentum that ultimately proved decisive in winning the series.
“I still remember the first scrum. It was on the right hand side and set up the try for John Smit,” he adds. “I was nervous and had butterflies in my tummy but I got a nice hit on Phil and felt very comfortable and thought to myself that I was going to up the ante on every scrum.
“Phil was a legend; he had captained England and played in World Cup finals. He was a destructive scrummager but we did a lot of analysis on him and the thing we identified was that he always wanted to get on the front foot and dominate. So we knew we couldn’t let him get comfortable.
Mtawarira (left) and Bismark du Plessis (centre) were too much for Phil Vickery (right) in the first Test
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“So Bismarck helped me in a big way. We put the hit on him together and brought the pressure and power together because we were both big physical specimens.
“I don’t think Phil had felt that kind of pressure before. It was one of those occasions where we worked well together as a combination.”
The Beast is in no doubt, 12 years on, that the scrum confrontation will have an equally seismic impact on the series.
Tadhg Furlong is the tighthead who faces the challenge of locking the Lions’ scrum and is up against the relatively inexperienced but powerful scrummager of Retshegofaditswe ‘Ox’ Nché, while the Springboks also have a hugely impactful front row to unleash from the bench in Malcolm Marx, Steven Kitshoff and Frans Malherbe.
To combat their power, the Lions have been doing specialised isometric work, holding scrums for 15 to 20 seconds to attempt to depower the Springbok scrum.
“When any team measures themselves on a certain aspect of play, if you take that away from them, or you match them, or they don’t get any advantage from that area, then you’ve got to take it as a win,” said Robin McBryde, the Lions scrum coach. “Because the amount of time that teams spend on certain areas to maintain that, if they don’t get it, you challenge them to go to a Plan B. We’ve matched you here, what else have you got?
“Without doubt, we can take a lot of positives from that A game, but I’d expect them to come a lot harder again in the same areas. If anything, that’ll make them a bit hungrier again. They’ll rise to the challenge again. They’ll see it as: we need to go harder, we need to do certain things better. So we’re going to have to do the same thing from our end.
“What we were keen to stress to the referees, in the scrum in particular, is we’re not looking to match them. We’re looking to go beyond that really and build on the performances we’ve had to date.”
The Beast however is backing the Springboks to make their mark, just as they did so spectacularly 12 years ago.
“I think it’s going to be a massive battle,” he adds. “Because you know, the set piece is key to winning this series and rugby philosophy never changes, especially in Test rugby. When you get ascendancy up front, you lay the platform for the team to win.”