South Africa’s Tendai Mtawarira – nicknamed the Beast – believes the Springboks will have to “play out of our skins” if they are to beat England in the Rugby World Cup final.
England booked their place in Saturday’s showpiece match in Yokohama with a stunning 19-7 win over New Zealand last weekend that ended the All Blacks’ eight-year reign as world champions.
By contrast, South Africa ground out a 16-13 semi-final victory over Wales in an attritional contest 24 hours later to set up a repeat of the 2007 final the Springboks won 15-6 in Paris.
“They (England) are playing great rugby and with confidence so, it is going to be a big challenge for us,” said Mtawarira, whose ‘Beast’ nickname, which dates back to his schooldays in Harare, is an affectionate tribute to the 114-kilogram, or 18 stone, prop’s strength.
“They were charged up for the (New Zealand) game, right from the first minute. They got on the front foot and were more physical and they got their reward.”
South Africa have been triumphant in their two previous World Cup finals, memorably beating New Zealand on home soil in 1995 before defeating England in Paris in 2007.
Victory in Yokohama on Saturday would continue their sequence of being crowned world champions at 12-year intervals, but it would also mean the Springboks having to make history of a different kind as well.
Every team that has so far lifted the Webb Ellis Cup has gone through the tournament unbeaten. South Africa, however, lost their first match at Japan 2019, going down 23-13 to arch-rivals New Zealand in Yokohama last month.
But Mtawarira, a veteran of 116 Tests who is set to retire from the game after the tournament, knows that history will mean little when the teams line up.
“What has happened in the past doesn’t really count. We know we’ll have to play out of our skins to win it on Saturday,” he said.
The last time the finalists met, England edged out the Springboks 12-11 at Twickenham in November 2018, with home captain Owen Farrell fortunate not to concede a penalty when, with 80 minutes on the clock, he escaped censure for an illegal ‘no arms’ tackle.
“Every time we play against each other it’s always a physical onslaught and I don’t think it will be any different next Saturday,” explained Mtawarira, who said he was “excited” by the prospect of facing England props Mako Vunipola and Kyle Sinckler.
The 1995 World Cup remains a landmark in South African history, with the sight of Nelson Mandela presenting the trophy to captain Francois Pienaar providing an iconic image of the ‘Rainbow Nation,’ but Mtawarira was only 10 years old and it passed him by.
“I was just a primary school kid in Zimbabwe back then, I didn’t watch rugby then, I was playing soccer,” said the 34-year-old Mtawarira.
The second win under the captaincy of John Smit in 2007 – which took place a year before the Beast’s Test debut – made far more of a lasting impression.
“In 2007 I did watch and it was amazing, inspirational stuff and to be part of a World Cup final is a dream come true for me. I have worked hard throughout my career to get here and I want to make it count,” he added.
Victory for South Africa in the final would, as was the case 24 years ago, have a resonance beyond rugby given flanker Siya Kolisi is the first non-white captain of the Springboks.
“It would be extra special,” said Mtawarira, who was granted South African citizenship in 2010.
“Siya is an inspirational leader, in the way South Africa has got behind him. It means a lot to unite the country. He has been exemplary. It would be amazing to win this World Cup with him as captain.”
And it would be an amazing way for the Beast to bring down the curtain on a memorable international career.