Heyneke Meyer says Victor Matfield has proved that age is just a number through his commanding performances for the Bulls in 2014. JON CARDINELLI reports.
On Tuesday, Meyer confirmed that Matfield will lead the Springboks in the injury-enforced absence of Jean de Villiers. This Saturday’s match against the World XV at Newlands will mark Matfield’s first game for the Boks since the 2011 quarter-final defeat to Australia. The 110-Test lock will also captain South Africa in the subsequent Tests against Wales and Scotland.
With De Villiers sidelined, Matfield is the best man to lead the Boks. He has not only captained the Bulls to some monumental Currie Cup and Super Rugby victories over the years, but was also at the helm when the Boks recorded a rare victory in New Zealand back in 2008.
When Matfield announced that he would be coming out of retirement, he cited his desire to play for the Boks again and win another World Cup title. There were concerns that at 37, he may be past his best, and they are concerns the player has worked hard to alleviate while playing for the Bulls in 2014.
‘I said he would have to prove himself, and he’s done that,’ said Bok coach Heyneke Meyer at the unveiling of the interim captain on Tuesday. ‘He deserves this.
‘He’s a remarkable man and an unbelievable leader, but he can also lead from the front. That’s what I want. Jean showed that last year [when he was the captain], and he was eventually named the South African Player of the Year.’
Matfield didn’t start the season as the Bulls captain. Injuries forced him to take up the mantle, and to play more games than was initially planned.
The Bulls had hoped to rest the veteran lock for the entirety of their Australasian tour, but these plans were scuppered when the Pretoria franchise lost senior players to suspension and injuries.
Meyer believes that Matfield showed his value during this period as both a leader and a captain.
'With all respect to the other players who led that young Bulls side, they didn’t do as good a job,’ said the Bok coach.
Matfield’s presence at the lineout has also been key for the Bulls, and the stats support the assertion that he is the best South African No 5 in the tournament.
The injury to De Villiers has forced Meyer to select an interim captain, and in the end the choice was relatively simple. Fourie du Preez is a respected and experienced player, as is Bismarck du Plessis, but neither has the presence of Matfield.
Matfield tried to play down his importance, saying that he will rely heavily on his senior players over the course of the next month. That said, he does feel he is ready for what Meyer has described as ‘a big responsibility’.
‘I’m feeling good at the moment, and I think it was a blessing in disguise that I have played a bit more than initially planned [for the Bulls in the Super Rugby tournament],’ he said. ‘I started to feel that old sharpness returning in the last few games for the Bulls. It was a good thing.
‘I have always thought it would be a great honour to play for the Boks again, and to play under Coach Heyneke. When you’re a bit older, you have to work even harder [to perform to the required standard] and I have said from the beginning that I will do whatever it takes.
‘As for the captaincy, I was both excited and nervous about it. I thought to myself, am I doing the right thing, because there will be a lot of pressure and opinions about my age. But I am confident that I have the right guys around me.’
Meyer has reiterated that Matfield’s appointment is short-term, and that De Villiers will resume the captaincy when he returns from injury in the Rugby Championship. Thereafter, Matfield will form part of the Boks’ senior core.
Meyer said that if De Villiers was not available for the rest of 2014 and if he was forced to pick another long term-captain, he would consider Du Plessis as the prime candidate. But given De Villiers will be back for the Boks in August and the World Cup is just over a year away, Meyer is not looking too far ahead.
Matfield said it would be great to be part of the team that travels to England in 2015.
‘Hopefully I can play well enough to be considered for that. It would be great to bring the Webb Ellis Cup back to South Africa,’ he said.
Photo: Rory Keohane/HSM Images