Tendai ‘Beast’ Mtawarira’s Major League Rugby [MLR] stint with Old Glory DC was limited to three games due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but he was impressed by what he saw and expects the sport to bloom in the United States.
The USA have been handed hosting rights to the Rugby World Cup in 2031 (men) and 2033 (women), and Mtawarira feels the domestic league will grow significantly as those dates draw closer.
Speaking to ESPN at the University of Cape Town, which hosted the Rise Residential Summit in conjunction with NBA Africa Day, the legendary Springboks front rower, said: “At the time that I went, the MLR was growing quite significantly.
“Having a lot of ex-stars for different national team like myself, Ma’a Nonu, Mathieu Bastareaud — a lot of really good players that are legends, I could see that the rugby was actually improving.
“If I had to compare it to South African terms, I would probably say it’s just below the Currie Cup [South Africa’s premier domestic tournament] level, but I think the future is bright for USA rugby.
“There was a growing interest, but obviously, the average American still didn’t know what rugby was, so there was an education factor that was coming into play. It was unfortunate, because when I was there, my stint got cut short because of the pandemic. I had to pack up and come home overnight.
“Now, I have seen that there has been a resurgence in MLR and what they’re trying to do. Being awarded the World Cup [in 2031] – that’s a big one. They’re going to be able to ride on that wave and create more awareness for rugby in the United States.”
The 2019 Rugby World Cup winner was a big hit among the attendees at the summit, which brought together 100 teenagers of exceptional talent in various fields from 42 different countries. Despite rugby not yet being as popular as basketball globally, he was stopped for autographs at every turn.
Rise, which describes itself as “a program that finds brilliant people who need opportunity and supports them for life as they work to serve others,” joined with the NBA to give the selected teens a chance to speak to high-profile sports figures about their careers and challenges.
Mtawarira took part in a panel discussion with Liz Mills, who is fresh off a recent stint coaching AS Salé at the Basketball Africa League [BAL], where she became the competition’s first female head coach, and Festus Ezeli, a 2015 NBA champion with the Golden State Warriors.
Speaking on the early stages of his rugby career, which saw him arrive in South Africa as an unknown prospect from Zimbabwe, Mtawarira said: “One of the things that I faced here — we all know it’s the elephant in the room — was xenophobia, something that was really tough.
“I was here to contribute and give back to the country… You hit dark days, but you’ve got to stay the course and know the reason why you started the journey.”
It did not take long before the South African public took to Mtawarira, with cries of ‘Beast’ ringing around the stadia every time he touched the ball. He made his Currie Cup debut for the Sharks in 2006 and was a South African national team player two years later.
Mtawarira can now look back on his career as the third-most capped Springbok of all-time with 117 Tests to his name, the last of which was the World Cup final win over England in Japan. Only Victor Matfield and Bryan Habana have worn the green and gold on more occasions than the former prop.
Explaining the origins of his nickname, Mtawarira said: “I was a bit of a man-child. I was bigger than my peers in primary school. I think my best friend thought of the perfect nickname for me.
“I think X-Men came into the picture. As you know, there’s Beast on X-Men, so he decided to call me ‘Beast’ and it just stuck throughout my whole career since the age of nine and it still is my referred name.”
Now, he is using his name recognition to work with groups like Rise, but also to further his own initiative, aptly names The Beast Foundation.
He said: “To work with such amazingly talented youth just sets the precedent for what I’m trying to do with my foundation. I’m trying to create impact in communities across Africa by empowering the youth and I think Rise and the NBA are doing that on a global scale.
“This is so inspiring, because I’m all about the young people. They’re going to be our future leaders. They’re going to be at the centre of solving all these problems that we face today. There’s no greater cause than investing in our young talent. It’s been life-changing for me.”
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