Matfield’s locked and loaded

Victor Matfield has proved he can not only survive but excel at Test level again, writes RYAN VREDE.

They said he couldn’t do it. He did. They said his 37-year-old body would betray him. It didn’t.

There was nothing wrong with the circumspection around Victor Matfield’s return. He had, after all, last played in late 2011. However, for an athlete as gifted, a servant as loyal, with a mind as sharp, the level of scepticism, which often revealed itself in ill-meaning social media commentary, revealed how next-big-thing-focused and pessimistic so many in the South African rugby fraternity are.

Heyneke Meyer encouraged Matfield to rethink his retirement, having had a sense that he still had something significant to offer as a player and leader. More pertinently, he needed a player who could fill the troublesome No 5 void.

Meyer initially had great hope that Andries Bekker would soften the blow of Matfield’s retirement. He saw him as a natural and highly competent successor, who, with some refinement, could become as influential.

Then Bekker opted to pursue a career in Japan, leaving Meyer with a conundrum he struggled to solve until Pieter-Steph du Toit emerged. But the Sharks had demanded too much too soon from the youngster, whose body is still growing. Du Toit broke down a month into the Super Rugby season, a knee injury ruling him out for the rest of the year. Meyer had to look elsewhere. Matfield was that elsewhere. 

He made Matfield no selection promises and Matfield didn’t expect any. Instead, he earned Meyer’s consideration through his performances for the Bulls, which, it must be noted, were exceptional considering the length of his absence and the masses of critical eyes that were trained on him, waiting for him to fail. Taking into account that he had significantly less game time than most other premier No 5 locks (the Bulls often rested him), the fact that he ranked second on lineouts won on his own throw and fourth in lineout steals (this is the key performance area in which to measure him) is astounding. 

‘When I watched Victor in Super Rugby, I felt comfortable he wouldn’t let the Springboks down if called upon,’ Meyer says. ‘His mind was as good as ever, but I took into account that he wasn’t the same athlete at 36 or 37 he was at 32 or 33. I judged him athletically as a 37-year-old version of himself, not what I hoped he’d be or from past experience with him.

‘Having said that, he had kept himself in excellent shape in the years following his retirement. He was always among the leaders in fitness and conditioning in his playing days, and the feedback I got from the Bulls when he returned as a player was that nothing had changed. His work rate and mobility in the June Tests were as good as ever. So it was a question of what he could add with his technical skill and leadership ability. Both qualities were still there and strong.

‘When you consider that Pieter-Steph was ruled out through injury, the decision to bring Victor back into the Springbok fold was pretty easy based on his performance, conditioning, leadership quality, his value as a mentorship resource to the youngsters, and, most importantly, our need to fill the five lock hole.’ 

'I took into account that he wasn’t the same athlete at 36 or 37 he was at 32 or 33. I judged him athletically as a 37-year-old version of himself' – Heyneke Meyer

Matfield ensured Meyer’s investment in him yielded a strong return. Asked to  skipper the team in Jean de Villiers’s injury-enforced absence, Matfield amplified his value.

‘The pressure of the second Test against Wales [the Boks trailed by 17 and 13 points at different stages of the match before rebounding to win 31-30] would have got to a less experienced leader and we probably wouldn’t have stayed in the contest like we did,’ Meyer says. ‘Victor has been in those situations often and the way he kept the team from falling apart is testimony to his man- and game-management skills, and the belief and commitment he inspires as captain.’

Having proved his aptitude in June, Matfield’s next challenge is to show he’s a dominant force, particularly at lineout time, against the world’s best in the Rugby Championship. The Springboks privately believe they have closed the gap on the All Blacks considerably, but will need to justify that belief by snapping their unbeaten streak and winning the competition. Matfield’s lineout prowess will be central to this.

A number of men in the All Blacks’ lineout unit will come from the Crusaders, who boasted one of the best all-round lineouts in Super Rugby. This had previously been a point of weakness for the world champions, but if those men can replicate their franchise form, this won’t be the case any longer. Indeed, in 2013 their lineout operated effectively against the Springboks home and away.

However, this time around the Springboks will have regained the greatest lineout lock in the game’s history, a man capable of deciphering codes as if he had, in a previous life, worked for an elite national intelligence agency. Matfield is back and his capacity to infiltrate the thoughts of opposition hookers and jumpers, turning their brains to soup and hands to stone, is well known.

‘I’ve always prided myself on my ability to read the lineout,’ Matfield told me a couple of years ago. ‘It’s like it’s a type of Matrix and somehow I’m able to see the answer through all the complexities and make the right decision often.

‘The more I got it right, the more confident I became in my ability to secure our own ball and disrupt the opposition, and the more aware they became of my ability to do that. This means they try to combat me at the lineout and as soon as you start focusing on individuals, you lose a measure of control and power tactically.’ 

The Springboks will require Matfield to exhibit this unique skill once more, and, in Fourie du Preez’s absence, his leadership assistance to De Villiers as well as his tactical insights become evermore valuable.

The Springboks are undoubtedly stronger with Matfield than they are without him. Talk of him playing through to the World Cup is premature. He may yet find the demands of international rugby to be beyond him in the coming year. At present, they certainly aren’t.

– This article first appeared in the September 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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Ryan Vrede