Victor Matfield stood tallest at Loftus in the Vodacom Bulls' win against the Sharks at Loftus, writes MARK KEOHANE in Business Day.
The pretender to Matfield is Sharks No 5 lock Pieter-Steph du Toit. And on Saturday Matfield was again the master and Du Toit had to be content with the role of apprentice.
It isn’t the first time in Matfield’s distinguished career that he has been written off. It also won’t be the last time questions will be asked, within the media and by the public, about his potential World Cup contribution this year.
Matfield was the Man of the Match in the Springboks’ 2007 World Cup win against England. He has been the best No 5 lock in the professional era and he's rated by his peers as the most complete No 5 lock. Matfield’s understanding of lineout play and his contribution to restarts are unrivalled among locks in South Africa and, in his prime, in Tests.
He has done it all with the Bulls and the Boks. He has won Super Rugby and Currie Cup titles with the Bulls and won the World Cup, the Tri-Nations and a British & Irish Lions series with the Boks. He's the most-capped Springbok and regarded internationally as one of the finest to have played the game.
But South Africa, for a rugby player, is unrelenting, and Matfield has known this since he first moved to the Bulls. He has always had to endure criticism, much of it ill-informed and unfair, and his response has never been through a media fight or a social media platform with his detractors.
The Bulls captain has simply proved his worth on the field, and when he has come good, he hasn’t ever demanded public apologies.
Matfield knows his rugby. He knows the game better than most and he also knows that Bok coach Heyneke Meyer will not give up on him this year. Neither will Bulls coach Frans Ludeke.
Because of a two-year retirement in 2012 and 2013, Matfield will constantly be challenged during this World Cup year. He won’t always produce a performance as influential as he did against the Sharks in Pretoria.
But he will play enough of those type of games in Super Rugby to calm Meyer and give him the necessary comfort that the player, despite being 37 years old, is still the best No 5 lock option in SA and is still capable of producing big plays on big match days.
Stormers centre Damian de Allende was the other big South African performer in the win against the Lions. De Allende’s defence and stunning tackle on Lions winger Howard Mnisi was the match decider.
De Allende, whose international opportunities were limited last year, is the early Bok playmaker in Super Rugby. He gets better as a player each season and the greater his confidence, the greater his leadership role and desire to be a leader.
Watch him this season. He has always been strong and never lacked for physicality in contact. But in the early part of 2015 it’s been the way he's created chances with subtlety and the line-kicking variation to his game that's made him an even more dangerous prospect.
Matfield and De Allende were the obvious individual talking points in a weekend in which I managed to call all seven winners, albeit three of those wins came in the last minute of the match.
South African rugby’s strength was on show at Loftus and also in Johannesburg. Both matches had fantastic finishes, and in both, the teams played very positive rugby. In either match, the losing team could have been the winning one. There was very little between the sides, as was borne out by the scoreboard in both matches.
You had to feel good about the potential of South African rugby at the World Cup when watching the Bulls and Sharks get stuck into each other physically and also try to undo each other when it came to rugby intellect.
Pat Lambie and Handré Pollard, the two Bok flyhalves, were good when matched against each other and the intensity of the contest showed, with Springbok veterans and decade-long teammates Bismarck du Plessis and Matfield ripping into each other with strong verbal confrontations which both appeared ready to turn into something more physical.
The escape of the weekend came in Bloemfontein, though the nonpartisan would argue there was no escape from the Cheetahs and that it all had to do with the Blues’ inability to complete all of their attack opportunities.
The Cheetahs made 130 tackles to the 29 of the Blues and relied on just 30% of ball possession.
Yet they won, which tells you that statistics influence matches but don’t necessarily determine the result.
Photo: Anne Laing/HSM Images