Five lessons from the past weekend's Super Rugby warm-up, Top League and Six Nations matches, according to SIMON BORCHARDT.
Victor Matfield really is back
Matfield's return to the playing field was reported last November, but only confirmed last Friday. Having not initially been named in the squad, the 36-year-old lock came off the bench in the 49th minute of the Bulls' warm-up match against the Stormers in Polokwane, which was unfortunately not televised. However, according to tweets from those watching the game live, Matfield did well and stole one of the Stormers' lineouts, which is encouraging. He is expected to be eased back into Super Rugby by playing a bench role, in order to ensure he's ready for Test rugby in June, and it will be fascinating to see how he goes.
League convert Benji Marshall can cut it in rugby union
It's still too early to make a definitive judgement on Marshall but, according to reports, he did well in his first rugby union match since the age of 17. The former rugby league star wore the Blues No 10 jersey in their warm-up match against the Hurricanes in Masterton. 'He stood a tad deep early on as he kept a close eye on charging Hurricanes openside Ardie Savea, had an early dart, passed players into gaps and seemed to grow in confidence as the match went on,' wrote stuff.co.nz's Toby Robson. 'There was an awkward ruck cleanout and a welcome-to-rugby crunch when Savea read his trademark sidestep like a book. But on the whole Marshall was solid, he talked well and seemed to read the direction of play and looked like he was enjoying himself.'
Saffa Boks are big in Japan
SuperSport may not have televised the Super Rugby warm-ups, but they did bring us the Top League semi-finals. On Saturday, JP Pietersen came off the bench for the Pansonic Wild Knights in the second half of their match against the Toshiba Brave Lupus, and made an immediate impact when he collected a kick and took play from the opposition 10m line to inside the 22. From there, the ball went wide and Panasonic scored. The Bok wing also had a hand in the try that took his team to the 50-point mark. On Sunday, Andries Bekker and Jaque Fourie were both superb for the Kobe Kobelco Steelers, with Fourie involved in Bekker's try and the lock then scoring one himself. But they didn't finish on the winning side, thanks to the efforts of Bok scrumhalf Fourie du Preez, who helped set up Suntory Sungoliath's second try and prevented Bekker from scoring his second. When it comes to these South Africans, the Japanese clubs seem to have got their money's worth.
Don't make substitutions for the sake of it
Peter de Villiers learned this lesson in the Springboks' first Test against the British & Irish Lions in 2009, and England coach Stuart Lancaster learned it on Saturday. When Danny Care kicked a 56th-minute drop goal against France in Paris, his side led 21-16, having trailed 16-3 after 22 minutes. England were in total control at that stage, so why did Lancaster then make five substitutions in the next 10 minutes, including Care, who was playing at his very best, and Dylan Hartley, the rock of the scrum? As a result, the visitors lost momentum and instead of putting France away, they lost a match they should have won.
The Dragons need to start breathing fire
Wales are aiming to become the first team to win three successive outright Four/Five/Six Nations titles since 1863, but will have to up their game considerably if they are to achieve that. Warren Gatland's side were disappointing against Italy in Cardiff, and may not have got away with the 23-15 win had they not been gifted an early try and the visitors not missed important kicks at goal. Wales, though, lost their opening match of last year's campaign, against Ireland, and still went on to win the title, so Gatland won't be overly concerned. He will, however, know that his team need to perform a lot better against the Irish in Dublin this weekend.
Photo: Anne Laing/HSM Images