Springbok set piece has point to prove

Victor Matfield says the set-piece battle against Ireland will reveal how far this Springbok side has progressed, reports JON CARDINELLI in Dublin.

The All Blacks are no longer the measure of excellence, at least not with regards to the scrum and lineout. This is the view of the Bok coaching team as well as the senior players.

On Tuesday, veteran lock-cum-lineout coach Victor Matfield reiterated why Ireland are the world leaders in these facets. Ireland boast the best stats at the lineout and scrum in 2014, and have their own version of Matfield in the second row.

Paul O’Connell and Matfield have enjoyed some absorbing lineout battles in the past. So often it’s been the leadership as well as the individual contributions of these players that have meant the difference between winning and losing for their respective teams.

Matfield got the better of O’Connell during the British & Irish Lions series of 2009, but nobody will have forgotten what transpired the last time these two giants clashed. On 28 November 2009 at Croke Park, O'Connell and the Ireland pack outplayed the best lineout in the world and helped the hosts to a 15-10 win.

‘Paul is probably the best player I’ve played against in my career,’ said Matfield, an accomplished veteran with 117 Test caps. ‘He’s a real student of the lineout, and when [former Bok assistant coach] Gert Smal was still here [in Ireland as the forwards coach], I think Paul got an insight into the way I think. Paul also has some great jumpers at his disposal, so they will put us under pressure. How we respond will be significant.’

Two weeks ago, I asked Matfield how the Boks planned to build on their impressive set-piece performances in the Rugby Championship. The Boks were dominant at the lineout, and outmuscled the more fancied All Blacks scrum on several occasions. Surely the Boks had earned bragging rights as the best set-piece unit on the planet?

Matfield’s response was surprising. He said that Ireland were setting the standard in scrum and lineout play, and that the match at the Aviva Stadium would demand a lift in the Boks' standards.

Two weeks have passed, and Matfield feels the Boks have prepared well for the challenge.

‘We set ourselves high standards, and we’re not where we want to be just yet,’ he said. ‘These past two weeks have provided us with a great opportunity. We’ve trained hard, and tried to simulate certain situations. It’s also important to remember that you have to be accurate throughout the game, even when you are fatigued at the end.

‘Some teams were successful in sacking our maul during the Rugby Championship,’ Matfield continued. ‘I suppose you can look at how they sacked the maul [and whether the referee could have been stricter], but at the end of the day you have to focus on your own process. If we get it right, it will make the referee’s job that much easier.’

While the 35-year-old O’Connell will play through to the 2015 World Cup, Ireland have lost an inspirational leader and player following Brian O'Driscoll's retirement. On the subject of age and goals, Matfield reiterated on Tuesday that he remains motivated, even at the age of 37. He believes that this tour will be a monumental one for him and the Boks.

‘It’s funny that Brian retired just a year out from the World Cup,’ said Matfield. ‘Heyneke Meyer came to me [a couple of years back] and said he felt I could make a difference to the Bok side. I had to think about it, and in the end, I was happy to be part of a group that includes my mentors, Coach Heyneke, Johann van Graan and John McFarland. I’m still hungry for success, and I would love to be a part of the team at the World Cup next year, and to hopefully win it.

‘Before we left for Europe recently, [captain] Jean de Villiers told us that there were 365 days remaining until the 2015 World Cup final. So this is not an end-of-year tour, but a new beginning to a World Cup year.

‘We want to start that year well with a win against Ireland. We were happy with the win against the All Blacks [on 4 October], but we also expect to beat the All Blacks in South Africa. That is done with now, and we are focused on the next challenge.’

Duel of the Week: O'Connell vs Matfield

Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images

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