As if Ellis Park isn’t intimidating enough, the All Blacks will have to contend with a full stadium giving their favourite Springbok prop, Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira, a special welcome as he celebrates his 50th test match tomorrow.
Mtawarira joins his front-row partners — Jannie and Bismarck du Plessis — in the 50 cap club — a great achievement and an unique one to have an entire front row passing the half century mark in modern international rugby.
And while the trademark cries of “Beast” will be more passionate than normal this weekend, the Boks will celebrate a milestone for the Zimbabwean-born player, who has become such a favourite in fan circles because of his quiet demeanor, husky voice and deep rooted passion in the game.
To think that Mtawarira has twice had to overcome heart problems to make it to the top underlines his commitment to the game, and coach Heyneke Meyer was full of praise while announcing his name on the team-sheet for tomorrow’s Castle Lager Rugby Championship showdown at Ellis Park against the All Blacks.
“To play 50 test matches for your country is an unbelievable achievement, especially for the three of them to be playing together is almost unheard of. I’m really happy for Beast. He is really a soft-spoken guy who doesn’t say a lot, but on the field he produces for his country.
It is great to have him back from his injury and to come back from that shows how much character he has,” Meyer said of the prop.
“He is probably one of the most likable guys in the team. He has worked hard, starting at flank and has put in the yards to get there. Doc Craig (Roberts) told me a story that Beast used to walk to training, he didn’t even have a bicycle back then. I’m really happy for him, it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. He deserves it and I hope we will make it special for him on Saturday.”
First test for Franco
Another player who will be celebrating a special milestone on Saturday is Franco van der Merwe. The Golden Lions captain has been on the fringes of the squad for the past 18 months, and has had to wait for an opportunity.
With Flip van der Merwe suspended for one game, Meyer has opted for (Franco) Van der Merwe ahead of young prodigy Pieter-Steph du Toit on the bench as Juandre Kruger runs the lineouts again. And the coach is certain that Van der Merwe is the right choice for such a high-stakes game.
“One of the great advantages of being the Springbok coach is to call a player in and tell him he is playing his first test match. It is very emotional, even for the coach. This was a very special one, Franco has been around the squad for a year and a half and hasn’t been allowed to wear his Springbok blazer because of tradition,” Meyer said.
“He has been involved in all the lineout sessions, and even when I phoned him and told him I wanted him to play Currie Cup because I want Pieter-Steph (Du Toit) to come into the squad and learn, he was very positive.
“The decision has nothing to do with that, but it is just great to see him get his first test match, and to get it against a team like the All Blacks is awesome, and especially at Ellis Park. I believe in fairytale endings, and I’m happy for him.
Best line at team
“But the main reason is that Pieter-Steph is a guy who I see doing great things going forward, but he has only been with us for seven days now due to his injury. Franco was always the guy coming in.
“He knows the lineouts and he has worked with us. He will face the best lineout team in the world, so I need an experienced guy there at five.
“If he comes on for 15 minutes he will make a great impact, but if we lose Juandre in the first 10 minutes, you need an experienced guy there because there is no way you are going to score four tries if you don’t have an experienced lock at five.”
Van der Merwe has been knocking at the selection door for some time now, and now that he has a look in it is up to him, on his home field, to repay the faith that the Bok coach has shown in him.
Springbok team: Zane Kirchner, Willie le Roux, JJ Engelbrecht/Jan Serfontein, Jean de Villiers (capt), Bryan Habana, Morne Steyn, Fourie du Preez, Duane Vermeulen, Willem Alberts, Francois Louw, Juandre Kruger, Eben Etzebeth, Jannie du Plessis, Bismarck du Plessis, Tendai Mtawarira.
Replacements: Adriaan Strauss, Gurthro Steenkamp, Coenie Oosthuizen, Franco van der Merwe, Siya Kolisi, Ruan Pienaar, Patrick Lambie, Jan Serfontein/Juan de Jongh.
All Blacks: Israel Dagg, Ben Smith, Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu, Julian Savea, Aaron Cruden, Aaron Smith, Kieran Read, Richie McCaw (captain), Liam Messam, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Charlie Faumuina, Andrew Hore, Tony Woodcock
Replacements: Dane Coles, Wyatt Crockett, Ben Franks, Steven Luatua, Sam Cane, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Beauden Barrett, Charles Piutau.