Judgements regarding Victor Matfield's likely Springbok comeback will have to wait until we are well into the Super Rugby tournament proper, says JON CARDINELLI.
Matfield is set to make his comeback to rugby on Saturday when the Bulls tackle the Stormers in a warm-up match. The veteran will be eased back into the game after two years on the sideline, and is likely to play from the bench.
Perhaps it's fitting that this hit-out in far-flung Polokwane will not be televised. With the focus of the public and media trained elsewhere, Matfield will be spared the sweeping judgement of cynics who believe the legend has had his day in the sun.
Matfield shouldn't be judged on the performance of one game, and certainly not on the first he's played since retiring in December 2011. He shouldn't be judged on his showings in the first few rounds of the Super Rugby tournament either.
This is, of course, no rookie we are talking about; this is Victor Matfield, the pre-eminent lock of modern times, the winner of three Super Rugby titles, two Tri-Nations campaigns, a British & Irish Lions series, and, most importantly, a World Cup.
The odds are against any 36-year-old player making a successful return to rugby, but what people should bear in mind is that Matfield has never fallen into the category of ordinary. There is a chance he will recapture the magic of old in Super Rugby and transform that form to the Boks in the 2014 Test season.
He deserves an extended opportunity to get back to his best before he is judged, not only because of his past services to the Boks, but because the Boks need him now, more than ever.
Meyer hopes that Matfield will come through Super Rugby having proved that he still has something to offer South Africa at No 5
The Boks finished the 2013 season having won 10 of their 12 matches, but still behind the trend-setting All Blacks. Coach Heyneke Meyer admitted that South Africa still trailed New Zealand in disciplines such as tactical kicking and the lineout.
The All Blacks' Sam Whitelock has assumed the mantle of best No 5 in the world in the absence of Matfield. Flip van der Merwe has done an adequate job in that position for the Boks, and Pieter-Steph du Toit has been punted as the next big thing, but Meyer still finds himself in a quandary with regards to the next two seasons. Van der Merwe is an adequate stop-gap, and Du Toit's time as a lineout leader and competitor may only come post-2015.
Meyer mentored Matfield during those early days at the Bulls, and knows what Matfield offers as a player and leader. He would have brought Matfield back in 2012 if not for the red tape.
Meyer hopes that Matfield will come through Super Rugby having proved that he still has something to offer South Africa at No 5. It is a hope that should be shared by the South African public given how thin the Boks are in the department of experienced and truly dominant No 5s.
There may come a point where Matfield shows that he doesn't have what it takes to start in 2014 or push through to the 2015 World Cup, and in that scenario, Meyer will have to be strong in moving on to a contingency plan. But we're not nearly at the point where such judgements need to be made.
For now, Matfield should be allowed the opportunity to get back to his best. It's an option worth exploring, and if successful could make all the difference to the Boks' 2014 and 2015 goals.
Photo: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images
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