Victor Matfield has looked every bit his age and needs to find his stride to allay concerns about his longevity, writes RYAN VREDE.
When Matfield announced he was coming out of retirement I was pleased. I felt he'd called it a day too early, that he still had something to offer South African rugby through his contributions with the Bulls and Springboks. Subsequently, his Vodacom Super Rugby form was deemed good enough for a Springbok recall, and while he wasn't nearly the player he was before he retired, he certainly didn't look an impostor.
However, he has been seriously off the pace in the opening rounds of Super Rugby. His defensive and offensive lineout work remains very good, but beyond that he has looked a veteran desperately trying to survive in a young man's world.
Matfield has started campaigns slowly in the recent past and been subjected to questions around his ongoing physical competence, only to become increasingly better as the tournament has gone on. This time, however, there's a different feel about the situation. He has appeared to be willing his 37-year-old body to comply, whereas it once bowed without a fight.
It's far too early to make an absolute judgement on his value going forward – Matfield is one of the great players of all time, his technical strength matched by his granitic mental constitution. He may well rally. Indeed I hope he does.
From a South African challenge perspective, an in-form Matfield is essential to the Bulls' cause, while the Springboks would undoubtedly be a stronger side at the World Cup with him playing to his ceiling. That ceiling, it must be accepted, won't be anywhere near as high as it once was, but must still see him exhibit an acceptable level of competence across key performance areas.
At present he's falling short of even basic expectation, but he has earned a measure of patience as he seeks to settle into a consistent groove.
I'd like to believe that Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer wouldn't ever be in a position to end Matfield's international career. Matfield, I think (an educated guess based on a long professional association) is the type of man that would know if he would be a liability at the global showpiece and draw the curtain before he is hooked off stage.
Personally I hope he can hold back the years. Yet, whereas last year there was a fair degree of certainty in his ability to do so, now I can only hope.