Brian Mujati: I wanted to be a Springbok & I did that

Jean Smyth Jean Smyth

The Northampton Saints prop Brian Mujati didn’t answer his phone when a South African number he didn’t know, rung.

Nothing sinister in that, it’s in fact relatively standard practice for most sportspeople. The last thing a player, who doesn’t enjoy dealing with the media in any case, wants is a pesky hack proving an irritation, and what’s worse now is that they have your number.

Well, eventually curiosity got the better of the former Lions, Stormers and Springbok prop when it rang again so he took a breath and answered.

On the other end was none other than the Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer who wanted to chat, as Mujati recalls.

“He was saying that he wanted me to play for South Africa and he wanted to know if I wanted to.

“I was a bit surprised by the fact that he was wondering that, but I told him that of course I wanted to. He was saying that there was a perception in South Africa that I didn’t want to play for South Africa again, which was just completely untrue.

“I said: “Ja, I would like to play for South Africa” and he said he would like me to be in his plans for the 3 Tests and to play in the games (on the end of year tour of the UK).”

And keep in close contact they did, with Meyer looking to start to put together a squad he believes can win him the World Cup in 2015 in England. Of which two tightheads, with Jannie du Plessis being the incumbent, will form an integral part of building that challenge.  

After the squad announcement for the tour, intrigue grew about who this mysterious ‘Player 32’ was in Meyer’s plans. And with the news that du Plessis was gifted a number of extra days off to recover at home before jetting, out it became apparent that the ‘club’ that Meyer referred to in his press conference that they were still dealing with was Mujati’s.

“I spoke to Heyneke almost every other day for about a week before he announced the team,” Mujati picks up. “And he said he would announce me in the team but they were just waiting for approval.

“They then said the approval was taking a bit long, so they weren’t going to call out my name just in case there was going to be a problem.

“Then before they were about to come here I got a text from the Team Manager (Ian Schwartz) saying things were looking a bit unlikely and they were going to get in touch with me, to let me know what was going to happen. And that was the last that I heard,” he states matter of factly.

It was an eerily familiar course of events for the man from Zimbabwe, which ultimately drew to a conclusion the international future of one of the world’s foremost tighthead props.

“That’s the same thing that happened with Peter de Villiers. I had Rassie Erasmus and Peter de Villiers call me, he literally said I would start at the World Cup for the Boks, I was the first-choice tighthead.

“And then they sent me a text saying ‘it’s looking a bit unlikely’. So I think it’s only fair to give up now.”

That’s twice in the space of one year that the South African Rugby Union (SARU) have fought a noble battle for their respective coaches, in Mujati’s corner, and both times they’ve fallen foul of the Sports Ministry.

The issue of Mujati playing for the national team is a long and storied one. It’s grounded in the fact that nobody can represent the Springboks unless they hold a South African passport, which Mujati doesn’t.

It’s a crucial piece of legislation ultimately crafted to protect the integrity of our national teams but as always there will be exceptions or cases that warrant special attention.

Despite living well over the required period for naturalisation in South Africa he didn’t complete the process of being naturalised in the eyes of the law before moving abroad.

As first reported by Eyewitness News Sport, Saru’s latest application to the Minister of Sport, Fikile Mbalula, to grant Mujati a special concession to play for South Africa has been firmly denied and the Mujati should seek to be naturalized if he wants to play for the Boks.

With the Ministry in fact unhappy that they’d been placed in what they view as an ‘invidious position’ by Saru, in hoping to push through his selection so close to a tour.

With such a dramatic turn of events and the effective end to his hopes of rekindling his international career how was this message conveyed to Mujati, by the sport’s governing body in South Africa, surely he was aware this decision had been taken?

“I am aware of that because I saw it on the internet, but no one has actually told me that,” he says, before reflecting.

“But that’s fair enough. I have a family now; I can’t take this chance to move to South Africa in the hope that I play rugby for the Boks,”

It’s an increasingly common move for talented South African youngsters to make. There’s no better current example than Mujati’s former colleague at Northampton Juandre Kruger, who left to play for the Saints before returning to Pretoria. Kruger is now a fixture in the current Springbok squad all the better for his stint at Franklins Gardens.

“I think when I left South Africa that’s what I wanted to do,” Mujati says. “I wanted to go play in England for a year or two and I felt like I had to prove myself. I remember reading online when I signed for Northampton: “Brian Mujati’s not a good enough scrummager to play in the Northern Hemisphere, he’s not a good enough player to play in South Africa.

“And I left to come here and things seem to go alright over here. I was in the Premiership team of the year and nominated as a player of the year. Then people say: “well it’s an inferior league.” So, you can’t win.

“I have nothing to prove to anybody (anymore).”

Strong stuff indeed and while for many that might be difficult to digest, despite accusations in some quarters of a lack of loyalty among other things, Mujati says he’ll always be grateful for the opportunities he received.

“When I was a kid I wanted to be a Springbok, and I did that. Everything that I do now is just (a) bonus.  I got to live the dream, and for me that’s enough.

“I can’t keep trying to jump through hoops and begging people for things that probably aren’t for me to have I suppose.”

A quick trawl of the internet and social media sites will find many an expert on what’s transpired in Mujati’s life and the route he’s taken to where he is now. There’s some truth, plenty of negativity and a fair dollop too of presumption of knowledge about the man. This is what he has to say.

“When I came from Zimbabwe, I came to play rugby in South Africa, straight from school. I didn’t have a contract, I didn’t have anything.

“I just sort of came on a bus and I just had a coaches number.  I nagged him until he let me play and that’s how I ended up at the Lions (from where he moved to the Stormers and eventually abroad).

Mujati goes on: “I had a big falling out with my dad; literally 10 years ago and I haven’t seen him in that long. A lot of things that people have written about (him) stealing a farm (in Zimbabwe) and all that sort of stuff, I knew just as much (about the situation) as the person reading it. I wasn’t there; I was just in South Africa trying to play rugby.

“The whole thing was sort of spun to make it seem like I was in on it, and I was benefiting from the thing, my parents were in government and I was a Zanu-PF guy. That just wasn’t the case.

“It took me a long time to sort of get over that and move on,” he concedes.

“That’s what I got to do when I got to England. I got here and nobody had any preconceived notions of me. It was just about rugby. It got me to knuckle down and focus on that and that’s why it’s been good for me I guess.”

And what of the perception that he didn’t want to play for South Africa, or took advantage of what’s seen as an intensely privileged position in playing for the Springboks?

“One thing I learnt from my time in SA is that not a lot of people, with regards to me, seemed to want to focus on whatever the facts may have been.

“The last year of my time there was very difficult because I had the whole farm thing and I sort of just detached myself, which I think perhaps some people put this hypothetical two and two together that I didn’t want to play for SA, which wasn’t true. I was just a bit down.

“And (since I’ve left) I never came back. I left South Africa and to this day I haven’t been back to Africa, which is kind of funny. Not even for a holiday.”

Mujati’s made the decision that he won’t return to South Africa in the near future, with rumours of him leaving for a lucrative contract in France at the end of this season.

He played 12 Tests for the Boks, his first against Wales in 2008 in Bloemfontein, his last as a replacement in a 42-6 drubbing of England at Twickenham at the end of that year, one of 10 caps as a substitute.

So how does he reflect on his Springbok career?

“One day when I’m 50 or 60 I’ll look back and I’ll always be proud of the fact that I got to play for South Africa.

"I don’t think I really got an opportunity, if that makes sense. I got to start my first Test and I played an average game. I didn’t think I played badly but I didn’t play great.”

Mujati adds: “The very next morning on the plane I was reading about my dad stealing a farm and things started to spiral downwards for me.”

“Even though that happened, I don’t think that Gary Gold (Springbok forwards coach at the time) or Peter de Villiers really gave me a chance, they never let me start games, I remember they started to play John Smit at tighthead (for example).

“I don’t see I ever really got a decent opportunity to play for South Africa. A lot of those Tests I came off the bench, I played 8 or 9 minutes.”

Given up? Beaten? Made peace? International Rugby Board regulations mean that he can never represent anther country having already played for South Africa. But might he perhaps approach the IRB regarding his relatively unique situation?

“It’s difficult. I think I’m growing to accept that no matter how well I play I can’t really play international rugby. That’s part of life; it’s just how it is.

“I think that I actually have made peace with it.

“In terms of rugby, South Africa was a good time for me. I enjoyed it.

“There was obviously a lot of difficult times but I did it all by myself. I had no family; I had no one to support me.

“I literally came (to South Africa from Zimbabwe) on a bus and flew to England as a Springbok, and I’ll always be proud of that.”