Springboks World Cup winner Tendai Mtawarira has opened up about some deeply personal issues in his life, namely the heart condition that nearly derailed his stellar career, his faith which helped him through the crisis and his conversion in 2006 from back row to prop.
Now retired from Test rugby following last November’s World Cup final win over England, the prop, who has since moved to Old Glory DC in America’s Major League Rugby, spoke to historian and author Dean Allen as part of a weekly fundraising effort for the Chris Burger and Petro Jackson Players’ Fund.
Reflecting on the problematic heart condition that first affected him a decade ago, the 34-year-old former Springboks player explained it was the scariest thing to ever happen to him. “It started in 2010, during the Super Rugby season,” admitted Mtawarira about a condition where electrical impulses that coordinate a heartbeat don’t work properly, causing the heart to beat too fast, too slow or irregularly.
“It was a normal day, I had lunch with the boys and a cup of coffee. The next thing I felt my heart beating so fast. I called the (team) doctor and they rushed me to the cardiologist. He figured out I had a heart arrhythmia. When you hear you have some kind of heart condition, you start fearing for your career. That was the biggest shock. The cardiologist said: ‘This is not life-threatening’.
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“He said it won’t stop me from playing, but it is ongoing and will slow me down. What they did when my heart went out of sync was to rush me to the emergency room. They used the defibrillators. They knocked me out and shocked me back to life. Then my heart was back in sync.
“It was a challenge and my faith came into play. I am a very strong Christian and faith has always been my foundation. I played with the condition for about six months before I went to Cape Town to do a process called ablation.
“They told me I could not do any sporting activities for two months. It was off-season, so I was able to recover and come back and play Super Rugby. However, it didn’t go away. It came back again. I had to go for another ablation, sit out for another couple of months.”
The layoff didn’t work, Mtawarira suffering a third scare the night before a Springboks Test against Ireland in Dublin. “The Friday night it was back again. I remember breaking down and crying in front of our team manager Charles Wessels. I had to leave camp and was put on the next flight out and went for another ablation.
“It was pretty tough, but I remained faithful and after that third incident it never came back again. I was in the best shape ever, played some of my best rugby and was able to win a World Cup. It is a testimony of being faithful.”
Mtawarira, the so-called Beast, also spoke about his conversion to prop from back row in 2006, which altered the fortunes of his career, culminating in 117 Springboks appearances. “When I got scouted by the Sharks, I was a No8,” he continued.
“My first year in the (Sharks) U20s I played back row. Swys de Bruin, our (U20s) coach at the time, tried to give me game time because he saw I was very explosive, got around the park and carried the ball very well. His philosophy was that he just needed guys who were hungry – even if you were out of position, don’t worry about it.
“Dick Muir was the Sharks coach at the time. He said: ‘Beast, I see you progressing and becoming a star, but for you to do that I think you need to change position’. He [Muir] asked me to change to the front row. I wasn’t 100 per cent sold on the idea. People were suggesting it would take me a few years to master the technique.
“It was June 2006 and we were in the Currie Cup. He [Muir] asked me to drop out and go play some club rugby. Balie Swart took me under his wing. He made me move around with a note pad and write down all the information I needed to know to be a successful prop. I eventually bought into the idea.”
'It did turn sour'
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