The void that Victor Matfield left will be felt once more when the Springboks set off for their European tour without a specialist No 5 lock, writes RYAN VREDE.
Matfield is incomparable, having established himself as the greatest lineout lock in the game's history in a career that spanned a decade and 110 Tests. He is a once-in-a-generation player. Perhaps he will never be matched.
Matfield retired too early, pushed into a life of business and coaching at least two years before his powers had faded to a degree that warranted that course of action. Many of his close friends had opted to continue their careers abroad, and, having not enjoyed his stint with Toulon in 2008 as much as he would have hoped, he had no desire for another overseas sojourn. So he called it quits, when a sabbatical that would have refreshed body and mind would have been the more pragmatic option.
The South African rugby fraternity didn't feel his absence at first. Andries Bekker had failed to emerge from Matfield's shadow, but he was nonetheless a formidable player. Then he stalled his Test career, signing a lucrative deal with Japanese club Kobelco Steelers. Juandré Kruger, Matfield's long-time understudy at the Bulls, was next in line. Now he has been deemed not good enough, judging by his omission from the touring squad.
This leaves Pieter-Steph du Toit and Flip van der Merwe as the only two players capable of starting there. Neither are natural fives, although coach Heyneke Meyer has repeatedly expressed to me his plan to have the former establish himself in the position.
Du Toit (21) is uncapped and in his first season of senior rugby. Certainly he is a prodigious talent, as evidenced by his outstanding performance in the Currie Cup final. But to ask him to man as important a facet of play as the lineout (statistically the most effective try-scoring launch for the Springboks over the past two seasons) is risky. This leaves Van der Merwe as the likely starter, yet his performances at No 5 lock in the Rugby Championship failed to inspire.
Matfield, I understand, feels a desperate sense of incompleteness relating to his Test career. In 2012, Meyer tried to convince him to return, only to have those plans curtailed by the IRB's drug-testing policy (a player has to be in the pool of potential test targets for six months before he can play). But plans need to be set in motion for Matfield's return to Super Rugby in 2014, with a view to him being involved with the Springboks through to the World Cup in 2015.
My estimation of his ongoing prowess may be deeply flawed. He may be exposed in Super Rugby as spent and through that process get the closure he needs. I don't believe he will be and feel strongly that he has a role to play as a starting No 5 for the Springboks and mentor to Du Toit.
With Bekker likely to see out the bulk of his playing days in Japan and no suitors of any note in the South African game at present, Matfield is the SOS call that needs to be made. For now I hope the Springboks will circumvent the challenge they have at No 5. It is a significant one and undoubtedly one that could seriously undermine their success.
Photo: Barry Aldworth/BackpagePix
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