Having dismissed fears around his aptitude with a string of excellent performances for the Bulls, Victor Matfield should be tasked with leading the Springboks in Jean de Villiers' absence, writes RYAN VREDE.
Matfield shone once more in the Bulls' decimation of the Brumbies at Loftus on Friday evening, playing with the energy, intensity and intelligence of a Matfield of old. Increasingly he is looking like a previous version of himself, which suggests he has discovered a means of defying his 37-year-old body and bringing it under the control of a willing mind.
There had been widespread lamentation when he announced his return to the game late last year, with many fearing that he would tarnish his reputation by struggling to impose his will on matches in the manner for which he was once celebrated. Matfield has done more than simply meet base expectations. He has thrived. Indeed, such has been the strength of his performances that Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer has seen no reason to question his instinct that the veteran lock still had much to offer in a Super Rugby context, nor the suspicion that he could fill, competently, a troublesome void in the Springboks' line-up.
Matfield now looks poised to be the premier No 5 lock for the Springboks. He should also be the captain.
De Villiers will miss the mid-year Test matches through injury, and while there are a collection of experienced candidates who could fill the role, none trumps Matfield. Meyer has always insisted that experience and leadership credentials are a secondary consideration to form when selecting his captain. Matfield meets this primary criteria, but boasting the secondary qualities as well strengthens the case for him to lead. His record as captain of the Bulls, whom he led to a number of titles, including two Super Rugby crowns, is superb, while he has captained the Springboks previously in the absence of John Smit, always acquitting himself well.
He commands the respect of his team-mates and opposition and has worked extensively with Meyer before, knowing exactly what the demanding coach requires, tactically and from a leadership perspective. It would be an easy fit.
Fourie du Preez has been put forward as an option, but the scrumhalf has never been comfortable with the added responsibility (he has lead the Bulls on numerous occasions in Matfield's absence). An introvert, Du Preez hates the media glare and the public profile, preferring to aid the leadership through his often excellent tactical insight.
Schalk Burger is a proven leader and vastly experienced, but he isn't a guaranteed starter. Indeed, the possibility exists that he could be omitted from Meyer's match-day 23 altogether, although it is unlikely that the coach would not utilise the 68-cap Bok in some capacity during the Test window. The same argument stands for Adriaan Strauss, who, while a strong leader, won't unseat Bismarck du Plessis in a starting XV.
Du Plessis is an interesting case as a captain. Personally I feel he is more potent when unburdened by the responsibility of a formal leadership position. He is a fine player, among the best in the world in his position, but he lacks the aura of rugby's great leaders. I love seeing him immersed in battle, advancing his team's cause without any apparent conscious consideration to that cause. In short, I want to see Du Plessis operate on the border of insanity, and often. It is when he is at his most formidable. Clearly Sharks' director of rugby, Jake White, felt captaincy wouldn't shackle the beast. But I suspect that had there been stronger candidates, he would have looked elsewhere. Having gained considerable insight into Meyer's mind through a lengthy professional association, I can make an educated guess that he won't ask Du Plessis to take the reins.
This leaves Matfield as the strongest, and, in my view, best choice.
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