On the eve of the World Cup, Tendai Mtawarira gave Big Daddy Rugby an exclusive interview covering his rise in test match rugby, the challenges of adapting to the Sharks culture and the influences of Hegelianism and Kierkegaardian Existentialism on his playing style.
Nicknamed ‘the Beast’ by his family for his precocious ability to finish off four Big Macs in one sitting as a toddler – Tendai has made a name for himself in South African rugby with his signature run down the side lines: tree trunk legs pumping, ball in hand, a lock of Wynand Olivier’s hair in his mouth and the crowd bellowing: “Beeeaaaassssst!’
Big Daddy Rugby caught up with him before the squad left for New Zealand to gauge his mood before the big tournament.
BDR: Tendai, how does it feel to be a part of the squad going to New Zealand?
TM: It’s a great honour, not only to represent South Africa, but to also to be able to take on the New Zealanders in their back yard. There’s no bigger challenge for a rugby player.
BDR: Other than having to navigate the bizarre inefficient bureaucracy of our Home Affairs Department, what has been the biggest challenge you have had in adapting to South Africa?
TM: Well to be honest, I found the Sharks playing culture radically different from what I was used to. Growing up in Zimbabwe, I had been enormously influenced by Joey Muwadzuri – who as a coach had strongly Hegelian leanings.
BDR: I’m not familiar with Hegelian rugby philosophies. Can you elaborate?
TM: I’d love to. You see, Hegel wrote that history has a direction. We are going somewhere. For example, there is a trend to be more and more liberated as a people. We have liberated ourselves from slavery, from apartheid. Women’s rights and gay rights are advancing across the world. Look at the Arab Spring for example – history is going somewhere. It has an ultimate purpose.
BDR: I’m still not sure how this relates to rugby.
TM: Well when you draw on this strong continental tradition as a front-rower – you tend to play a certain way. You are more comfortable scrumming in, keeping your back straight and making sure that your fly-half gets good front foot ball from a solid right shoulder.
BDR: So how was playing at the Sharks any different? Those qualities you mentioned seem like the kind of thing that any squad would want in their front rowers.
TM: I know, right? That’s why you can just imagine my surprise when in my first training camp Dick Muir and John Plumtree pulled me aside and started telling me about this crazy Danish cat from the 19th century named Soren Kierkegaard. In some ways Kierkegaard was the total negation of everything that Hegel taught. Kierkegaard was about radical freedom, about the accountability of the individual to make free choices in the face an uncaring universe. I was completely blown away. And for a while, I questioned everything I had been taught about how to scrum as a front rower.
It seemed like all the other Sharks players like Keegan , Stefan and Kankowski were all existentialists too. There was little support for the ideas of Georg Hegel in the Sharks camp. The players seemed a little crazy if you came into the squad with a strong continental philosophy. For example, in my early days with the Sharks, I was often called into team meetings to describe a plausible theory of free will in a post-scientific world. Once, when we trailing Griquas in Kimberly at half time, John Plumtree made me give a pep talk in the locker room where I had to describe what it would be like if we woke up to find ourselves transformed into giant insects. What would this do for our strategy at ruck and maul time, would we have to change the structure of our drift defence into something more like an umbrella defence? I managed to give the team, especially Freddie Michalak a lot to chew on during that talk. It was then that I knew I was going to fit in with the Sharks culture.
BDR: Well, Tendai, you’ve given us lots to think about today. We wish you all the best for your trip to New Zealand. We know that the whole country is behind you. Except of course for Buthana Komphela – chairperson of the political sports committee who wanted to deport you last year- but politicians are knobs anyway. So good luck!