Boks in safe hands

Victor Matfield deserves our trust going into the World Cup, writes RYAN VREDE.

The perception of Victor Matfield has come full circle.

In the infancy of his career he was a promising rookie who lacked the application needed to build a long and successful professional career. Those who watched him closely saw the talent that would later blossom and make him one of the great locks in the game’s history, but those who were aware of his reckless approach to his social life knew he was betraying his talent.

Then Bulls coach Heyneke Meyer sat him down and gave him a shape-up-or-ship-out ultimatum. Matfield listened reluctantly but eventually settled into a lifestyle that would benefit his game immensely.

For most of his Test career nobody questioned Matfield’s value. That’s because his value was unquestionable. This isn’t the case any longer. The fingers are being pointed again, as they were when he was a kid, only this time the accusation is levelled at Matfield the player, not Matfield the man.

His comeback from retirement – prompted by his lingering feeling that he had gone too soon, a feeling that was legitimised by Meyer approaching him in late-2013 – wasn’t universally well received. Privately this hurt Matfield, who had become used to unadulterated admiration.

To his mind he could, in time, be the same player who retired after the 2011 World Cup. He’d retained a very good level of conditioning and fitness (perhaps subconsciously he knew he would give the game another crack) and stayed abreast of trends through a stint as assistant coach with the Bulls. Technically, he would skim the rust away over the course of a good pre-season and the early part of Super Rugby, he thought. Yet it wasn’t that simple.

His 36-year-old body wouldn’t bow to his will in the manner it once did. Certainly he couldn’t play more than a handful of matches consecutively without risking injury or fatigue at a level that would render him a liability to his team. So, rightly, he was managed through the tournament, neither embarrassing himself nor silencing those who deemed him a has-been.

Meyer reintroduced him to Test rugby in 2014 through the June series against Wales and Scotland, and the away Tests against Australia and New Zealand. The Boks lost both the latter games narrowly and Matfield became an easy target. Then he reminded us of his value through excellent performances against the same teams at Newlands and Ellis Park   respectively. His game against the All Blacks was particularly notable insomuch as it was a statement, one that screamed: ‘I. Am. Not. Done.’  

The Springboks desperately needed that throwback from Matfield. Meyer had trialled numerous players in the position, each without any great success. At the time he was telling anyone who would listen about the importance of having an experienced player in the position because the young bucks available to him didn’t yet have the rugby intelligence for the role. He had explained that the lineout had become one of the primary platforms from which tries are scored in Test rugby, thus demanding a commanding aerial presence, not only as a means of securing that attacking platform, but stifling it for the opposition.

In informal chats with me, Meyer spoke highly of Pieter-Steph du Toit, but lamented his chronic battle with injuries. If, after he emerged as a wonderful talent for the Sharks, he had stayed fit, there is little doubt he would be Meyer’s No 5 lock going into the upcoming World Cup. Instead Matfield will be that man and this vexes some to their very soul.

Injury in the Rugby Championship opener against Australia robbed him of the opportunity to prove his ongoing worth to those who doubt, and reinforce the faith of his believers. It would have provided greater insight into where he is technically and physically heading into the global showpiece and provided evidence to inform opinions.

In the absence of that, we are left with the option of hoping for the best outcome – Matfield staying injury-free (he was plagued by injury during the last World Cup) and turning in the type of performances he did in Cape Town and Johannesburg last season.

While I’m not one for sentiment in professional sport, I do accept that, in the absence of certainty, some players earn the right to be trusted on the basis of their past contributions. Matfield is one of those athletes. He no longer has the physical prowess of his younger self, yet he is no mug in the physical stakes. In terms of his value at lineout time, he has shown himself to be as astute as ever. Beyond that he has a presence that comforts his teammates and is disconcerting for the opposition. His leadership and experience complete a package that makes a compelling case for his inclusion.

This is the last time we’ll be discussing Matfield in this context. He will retire after the World Cup and it is highly unlikely he will mount another comeback. So we hope he turns back the clock and he rules the air, one, last, time.

– This article first appeared in the September 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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