By Robson Sharuko
HARARE – AFTER overtaking the legendary Os du Randt, as the most capped Springbok prop of all-time, Tendai Mtawarira was supposed to remember this year as his career golden year but it has turned out that this is the year the Beast would rather forget in a hurry.
The man, who was donated by Zimbabwe’s productive nurseries to South Africa, will no longer remember 2016 with pride, as he arrived back in Johannesburg on Monday with the Springboks from a nightmarish European tour.
The Boks failed to win a match from their end-of-year traditional northern hemisphere adventure for the first time in 14 years.
There is no question the Boks are in the intensive care unit and if their poor Rugby Championship campaign this year highlighted the team’s spectacular fall from grace, the European tour provided a graphic illustration of how much the team is turning into an embarrassment for a country where the Springboks are more than just a rugby team.
South Africa’s first democratically-elected President, Nelson Mandela, appreciated the significance of the Boks, especially among the country’s white Boer community, he embraced them – despite serious reservations from some of his closest colleagues in the African National Council – using the team as part of a charm weapon during the tricky transitional period from apartheid to black majority rule.
Millions of black South Africans viewed the Boks as the sporting arm of the apartheid rulers and, before the walls of apartheid were pulled down, it was common for blacks in that country to support a team which was playing the Springboks.
But Mandela embraced the Boks with the anti-apartheid hero’s decision to publicly support the team, during the 1995 Rugby World Cup, and also wearing the replica jersey of Springbok captain, Francois Pienaar, during the victory ceremony after the team beat bitter rivals New Zealand in the final, helped douse the flames of hatred, towards the Boks, among millions of black South Africans.
Mandela’s impact on the Boks during that World Cup inspired a Hollywood blockbuster movie, ‘Invictus’, starring Morgan Freeman as the former South African President and Matt Damon as Pienaar and was directed by Clint Eastwood in 2009 on a US$50 million budget. The movie grossed more than US$122 million on the box office.
But 21 years down the line, the Boks, who also won the 2008 World Cup in France, are a far cry from the heavyweight global sporting franchise that they used to be back then with their aura of invincibility, itself a quality that turned them into their country’s flagship sports team, having been blown away.
And, this year, the Boks stumbled from one disaster to another, losing to opposition which, until now, had been considered too lightweight to take them on. Led by coach Allister Coetzee, who has struggled to convince the country that he is the right man for the job, and weighed down by players who appear to have lost their touch in the trenches.
Coetzee’s regime appeared doomed from the very start when he suffered the embarrassment of becoming only the second Bok coach, in the post-isolation era, to lead the team to a defeat in his first match in charge when the South Africans slumped to a 20-26 Test defeat at the hands of Ireland in Cape Town in June this year.
John Williams also lost his first game in charge of the Boks in August 1992, against the All Blacks, during a forgettable spell that saw the team losing four of their five Tests, and the coach was gone in November that after only three months in charge.
The current Boks coach, though, was an oasis of defiance when he returned from the disastrous tour of the northern hemisphere saying he would not step down despite losses to England, Italy and Wales which saw them slipping to sixth on the World Rugby rankings.
“I’ve been appointed to 2019 and I want to make sure that when I leave I do so with a firm, concrete, tangible blueprint in place for how the Springboks must be run,” Coetzee told the South African media.
“We’ve got six months until we get back together again and need to spend that time wisely, planning for how we’re going to get back to the top.”
The Boks achieved a lowly 33 percent success rate this year, losing to Ireland in South Africa for the first time, losing to Argentina in Salta and crashing to a 15-57 defeat, at home, to the All Blacks in the Rugby Championship with the New Zealanders running in nine tries to record their biggest victory over their arch-rivals in 95 years.
That defeat provoked strong criticism of the Boks, in New Zealand, with influential columnist Mark Reason, suggesting on the Stuff.co.nz website that this might be the worst Springboks team of all-time.
“A few weeks ago I predicted that South Africa were so bad that they might well lose by a record score and margin in Christchurch,” Reason wrote. “Sorry, I was out by one match. The towelling happened at home in Durban, an even greater humiliation.
“The current All Blacks selection group might just be the finest of all time. Time and time again they are proved right, even when they apparently go slightly off road. And this might just be the worst selected South African team of all time, thanks to ignorant selectors, quotas and the European exodus.
“The continued selection of Juan de Jongh in the midfield is a farce. The guy’s defensive reading of the game and tackling ability are at least two levels below international test rugby. He was taken apart at the weekend by a rookie.
“De Jongh played a part in at least three of the All Blacks tries, including their two opening tries, missing crucial and straightforward first-up tackles.
“When Liam Squire gassed De Jongh on the outside in the second half, South Africa rugby literally had its head in its hands in the shape of Tendai Mtawarira, on the side line, who could not believe what he was no longer watching.”
And, for Mtawarira and his colleagues, questions are now mounting as to what the future hold for them, as the Boks stagger from one disaster to another, no longer the force they used to be in the world, with results getting worse by each passing Test and the opponents, effectively, getting better and stronger by each passing week.
Others believe it is time the Boks invest their future in younger players and, at 31, Mtawarira is part of the group of players considered seniors in the team and who, if things keep getting worse, could likely be sacrificed as a proud rugby nation makes drastic measures to arrest an alarming slide.
The good thing for Mtawarira, for now, is that he still retains the confidence of his coach.
The bad thing, though, is that there is no guarantee the coach will retain his job and that could spark changes in the team.
The Beast still roars, without a doubt, but the team is not firing and there could be some sacrifices that could be made soon.
The future, though, can wait.
What is not in doubt is that, what was supposed to be a landmark year for the record-breaking Beast, could be remembered for the wrong reasons.