Both the Springboks and Bulls will be in trouble if Victor Matfield breaks down with injury over the next few weeks, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The Bulls are not as big a threat without Matfield. This much was evident last Saturday when they played the Hurricanes in Napier. Their lineout wasn't as imposing, and they lacked leadership even before they lost several senior players to injuries towards the end of the first half.
Frans Ludeke has now recalled Matfield for the game against the Highlanders. It was hoped that Matfield could rest for the duration of this four-match tour, but with serious injuries sidelining Deon Stegmann and Dewald Potgieter, the Bulls desperately need an experienced player who can fill the leadership void.
Was it the right call? The Bulls need to bounce back this week and will feel that their chances of winning in Dunedin have increased with Matfield's inclusion. However, they will also be hoping that Matfield does not break down.
Bok coach Heyneke Meyer is another who will be holding his breath. Matfield needs game time after missing two seasons of rugby, but overexposure may lead to a serious injury.
Meyer has confirmed that Matfield is part of his plans for the next two years, and with Pieter-Steph du Toit and Franco van der Merwe ruled out for the bulk of the 2014 season because of injuries, the Boks aren't spoiled for choice in the No 5 position. It's more important than ever that Matfield is managed correctly at Vodacom Super Rugby level.
A four-week break at this stage of the year would have been ideal. If not for the injuries, Matfield would have returned to the Bulls' line-up after the Australasian tour. In that scenario, he would have played in the next four matches and gathered some momentum before linking up with the Boks for the June Tests.
As a player got older, the body took longer to recover from the big knocks
However, it's now possible that Matfield will feature in all seven matches before the June break. It's a no-win situation for the Bulls and Boks if Matfield subsequently breaks down with a fatigue-induced injury.
I remember chatting to Willem Alberts at the Boks' team hotel shortly after the second Test against England in 2012. Alberts had sustained yet another injury, and told me that as a player got older (he was then 28), the body took longer to recover from the big knocks.
If it's tough for a 28-year-old, think about how a serious injury may effect a 36-year-old Matfield. His recovery process will be slower than that of his younger team-mates. If he is pushed to play too much rugby in early 2014, a resultant injury would leave both the Boks and Bulls without a key player later in the year.
So was it the right decision for the Bulls to back-track on their decision to rest Matfield?
I don't think so. The Bulls need somebody to step into the breach at this stage; they need a leader. But it won't help if Matfield picks up an injury and is then forced to miss the business end of the tournament.
I thought the Bulls got it right when they announced that Matfield would be rested for four weeks. I saw it as a move that would benefit the Pretoria side as well as the Boks in the long run.
It could be said that recent developments have forced Ludeke's hand, but it may have been better to press on without Matfield for the remainder of the Australasian tour. The opposite course of action has put a massively important player at risk.
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