Tendai Mtawarira had options. One was to retire altogether from his rugby playing career; he had already announced he was leaving international competition after helping South Africa win last year’s Rugby World Cup.
He told an interviewer he’d gotten “one foot in the business world” with a South African security company. He could have put away his cleats and pursued a new, full-time post-rugby career.
Instead, Mtawarira realized there was still more he wanted to accomplish as one of his sport’s biggest stars: “At this stage in my career, I really just want to give more than I take.”
So the 34-year-old nicknamed “Beast” signed with the Major League Rugby expansion franchise Old Glory DC.
“I thought to myself … ‘I just won a World Cup. What do I want next?’” Mtawarira said Thursday. “The reality is that I want to make an impact. I want to grow the game globally. To be a sort of mentor to the young guys in America, to teach them how to play at the highest level.”
Mtawarira, who signed in December, met his teammates Thursday for the first time. He flew into Dulles International Airport and landed just two hours before his introductory press conference.
Despite the jet lag and the new surroundings, Mtawarira plans to play in Sunday’s home opener against the Seattle Seawolves, 3 p.m. at Catholic University’s Cardinal Stadium.
It’s a noteworthy signing for Old Glory DC, one that parallels D.C. United bringing in Wayne Rooney in 2018. As a club, D.C. United was not new, but its stadium was. The opening of Audi Field coincided with the American debut of one of England’s best soccer stars, someone who was also entering the twilight of his career.
For Old Glory co-owners Chris Dunlavey and Paul Sheehy, both natives of the District, signing Mtawarira, known as one of the world’s best rugby players, is their way of saying this new team means business.
“For all those reasons, from bringing a truly professional game to building the sport in our region and our city, we think we are signaling our commitment to that by having brought to our city one of the best rugby players in the world,” Dunlavey said.
Major League Rugby began play in 2018 and plays rugby union, the most common version of the sport which fields 15 players per side at a time. Similar to a touchdown in American football, players score a “try” for five points and then attempt a kick for a two-point conversion; like field goals, “drop goals” are three points.
One of the hallmarks of rugby, however, is a non-scoring set piece known as the scrum. That’s where the muscular 6-foot, 258-pound Mtawarira makes his impact as a prop, the position that supports the hooker and pushes against the opposing team’s forwards in a battle for possession.
“Props are the engine room of the games,” Mtawarira said. “The engine room is important because there’s a lot of force that goes into a scrum. The guys feel like their necks are gonna break sometimes. But it’s just part of the process. For a rugby team to function well and to be successful, the engine room has to be solid.”
Mtawarira is an imposing figure, but his “Beast” moniker didn’t originate as an athletic nickname.
“I was 9 years old, man, so I’ve had the nickname forever,” he said. “I got it from my best friend in primary school. It wasn’t because of my good nature. I was a bit of a bully, because I was a big kid.”
After he reached the rugby pitch, “eventually I showed the other side and became a good beast.”
Old Glory played its inaugural MLR game last week without Mtawarira, a road game at the New Orleans Gold that they lost 46-13. Old Glory coach Andrew Douglas said adding one superstar won’t simply transform his team.
“We can’t rely on him alone to change the things we faced on Saturday,” Douglas said. “He’ll give us more confidence in certain areas, but we’d be doing him an injustice if we just look at him and say, ‘Wave a magic wand,’ because that’s not the reality of rugby.”
The season is five months long, during which time Mtawarira’s wife and two children will stay at home in South Africa, where Mtawarira played for the Sharks in Super Rugby as well as the famed national team known as the Springboks.
Mtawarira echoed Douglas in calling the U.S. rugby market “untapped” and said he wants to bring his work ethic and brand of professionalism to his new club.
“I had to work at that (high) level for so long,” he said, “so for me to come out here, I want to impart that professionalism onto the league, onto the guys that I play with, and eventually the level of rugby just picks up and the USA can become a force in world rugby.”
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