Matfield’s welcome return

Victor Matfield has made the right decision to come out of retirement, writes MARK KEOHANE.

Schalk Burger, when quizzed on Victor Matfield’s comeback, said the challenge would be negotiating the demands on the body. It would not be the rugby.

‘You don’t forget how to play the game,’ said Burger, who is also playing Super Rugby for the first time in 24 months. Burger and Matfield were monumental in South Africa’s 2007 World Cup success and if fit and playing well, both will be in the Springboks’ 2015 World Cup squad.

For now, 2015 is a rugby lifetime away; it’s what happens in the next few months of Super Rugby that will determine whether there is an international call-up in June.

Both men are an asset to any team they represent, but they will have to add performance to their reputation as they have, at some stage of their Test career, been the best in the world.

Burger was the 2004 IRB Player of the Year. Matfield has never won the title, but he was the Man of the Match in the 2007 World Cup final and he is considered the finest No 5 lock produced in the professional era.

Both will add value to South African rugby in 2014. Both will add depth and mentorship to the Springboks.

I’ve never understood the haste to retire players in this country. Neither have I understood the obsession with a younger generation, even if those players are of inferior quality.

Test rugby is about winning. World Cups are about winning. Age should never be a consideration. Good enough should always be old enough, whether the player is 18 or 38.

Matfield is 36 years old and retired after the 2011 World Cup. Many felt he went a season or two early. Among those were the Springboks’ technical adviser in 2011, Rassie Erasmus, and Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer.

Matfield was more emotionally drained than physically finished. He was in desperate need of a break and a change, if not necessarily retirement.

I don’t share the pessimism around Matfield’s return. I don’t think there can be a loser. If the player finds his body can’t sufficiently answer the questions no one will be left wondering. Nothing Matfield does in 2014 can affect what he achieved in 110 Test matches for the Springboks and over 100 Super Rugby matches for the Bulls.

Matfield was the best No 5 lock in the world. No other lineout specialist controlled his team’s own ball like Matfield. And no other No 5 lock disrupted the opposition ball with such regularity and ease. 

No lock lineout specialist seemed to share Matfield’s technical expertise. His skills were unrivalled and no other No 5 lock in South Africa has matched him since his initial retirement. Matfield, wheeled out, would continue to cast doubt on opposition hookers when it comes to finding their jumpers in the lineout.

The only voice that matters in South African rugby when it comes to Matfield is Meyer’s

Rugby people have little doubt that Matfield has the capacity to be successful, for the Bulls and the Boks.

The ignorant among the rugby supporters have an overwhelming sense of conviction that his return is an April Fool’s joke. Then again, those not-so-clever ones had the same to say about scrumhalf Fourie du Preez’s international return.

Matfield, having experienced it his entire career, knows there is an element within the South African rugby support base that will never concede his brilliance or allow for the potential of more brilliance in his comeback year.

The only voice that matters in South African rugby when it comes to Matfield is Meyer’s. He knows what he has in Matfield and he has been among a select group of voices endorsing the qualities of Matfield and the need to get another 18 months of rugby out of him.

I wrote a few columns six months ago espousing the virtues of Matfield the rugby player.

I have no doubt his return is a good thing. I’ve never had any doubt.

Matfield has not played rugby for two years. That’s not a bad thing, considering he had spent the previous 11 seasons at the forefront of the game.

He certainly hasn’t lost touch with the game because in those two years he was involved as the Bulls’ lineout specialist and forwards coach.

More than six months ago, Matfield started a conditioning programme after discussions with Bulls coach Frans Ludeke and with Meyer.

The player informed the International Rugby Board of his intention to possibly return to rugby and because of doping regulations he was required to give six months’ notice. It meant he could be tested at any time. He has complied with this.

Ludeke and Meyer were enthusiastic about the possibility of Matfield playing again and neither has ever been concerned about his age.

Matfield was given the challenge of committing to a conditioning programme and once in the programme, the player would then know whether his desire would match that of the national coach.

The fact that Matfield is back for the Bulls’ 2014 Super Rugby campaign says everything about his desire to once again succeed. Players of his quality don’t return if there is ever a doubt.

There has been a national plan around Matfield for the past year and the Super Rugby season will only serve as an introduction to the plan to get Matfield to the 2015 World Cup.

His game time will be closely monitored. He won’t be overplayed and if injury doesn’t get the better of him, he will be in the Springbok squad in June.

Matfield’s role with the Bulls and Boks will be that of a player/coach. He will mentor as much as he plays. He will be responsible for the tuition of Pieter-Steph du Toit as a No 5 Test lock and another veteran, Bakkies Botha, will be involved with the continued evolution of Eben Etzebeth as the game’s leading No 4 lock.

Meyer understands the principle of experience and youth. He also appreciates that it doesn’t have to be one or the other in a squad. He can have all four players and balance their time on the field.

He saw the benefits of reinvesting in Botha against Scotland and France last November.

The Bok coach knows that involving Matfield in any capacity is an investment. It will never be a risk because Matfield’s true worth won’t be measured just in playing time.

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

VIDEO: Matfield in action