Victor Matfield will play for the Bulls Super Rugby franchise in 2014. And he is available for Springbok selection.
Matfield retired from rugby at the end of 2011, and had a short stint with SuperSport before joining the Bulls as forwards and attack coach.
Matfield and flyhalf Derick Hougaard (who has recovered from an Achilles injury that plagued him at Saracens) have been training hard in Pretoria as they attempt to return to the field.
Here’s the feature I wrote for the last issue of Business Day Sport Monthly, in which I said Matfield was still good enough to play for the Bulls and the Boks for the next 18 months if he still had the desire:
Get Victor Matfield on a pre-season conditioning programme and get him into Super Rugby in the 2014 season. Let’s see if Matfield still has the appetite for hard knocks and if he still has the desire to put his body and mind through 18 more months of rugby at the highest level.
This is not the rant of a lunatic who has lost it. It is also not a refusal to let go. It isn’t an April Fool’s joke and Danie Craven isn’t the next one on my list of Springbok legends I’d want to see in the Boks in 2014 and a part of the 2015 World Cup campaign.
Matfield retired a year or three too early from the international game, just like Fourie du Preez did. Both did so because they were fatigued and emotionally drained. Du Preez’s overseas experience playing in Japan has rejuvenated his career and Matfield has kept involved through a coaching role at the Bulls.
Matfield is still young enough and good enough to play for 18 months. The only issue is whether he would want to.
Springbok World Cup-winning coach Jake White brought back 1995 World Cup-winning prop Os du Randt in 2004 after the big man had been in retirement for three years. White identified a weakness in his front row. He had leadership concerns, based more on inexperience than ability. He found the solution by thinking differently about the situation.
White invested in Du Randt, in his pack, and another veteran, Percy Montgomery, among the backs. Montgomery had played 50 Tests and left for Wales to play for Newport. Out of sight and out of mind, said many South African rugby supporters. Good riddance said many more.
Du Randt’s initial recall wasn’t lauded. It was mocked. He was close to 140kg and by all accounts his knees couldn’t carry the weight of his body. White had a plan.
He also had a plan with Montgomery, and the Bok coach invested in this plan. He managed both players in different ways. Du Randt was on a special training programme. He wasn’t flogged in the week and he wasn’t told to prove he could make it through four training sessions in the week.
White needed both to deliver in the big moments in the big Tests. And both did, on the greatest stage, on that wonderful October night in Paris in 2007. Du Randt and Montgomery were the glue of the Boks’ 2007 World Cup challenge.
Meyer has a similar belief in Du Preez. And I know he is desperate to convince Matfield he still has a role to play.
The Springboks, in many aspects, made advances in this season’s Rugby Championship, but they lacked the pedigree in the pack when it came to decision-making and playing the big points the way big boys play them.
The No 5 lock position is a weakness for the Boks. Flip van der Merwe is not a natural No 5 lock. His physicality and bulk is more the making of a quality No 4.
Few squads can boast the options at No 4 lock available to Meyer. Eben Etzebeth has established himself as the first choice in the Boks and among the form No 4 locks in the game. Van der Merwe is a good alternative and veteran Bakkies Botha, playing for Toulon in the Top 14, has been as good as he has been at any stage of his career. Sharks lock Pieter-Steph du Toit is talented but still unproven in the Test arena.
The options at No 5 are limited. Juandre Kruger simply isn’t good enough. There is a reason he played second fiddle to Matfield for the best part of five years. He doesn’t have the presence of Matfield and he doesn’t command the opposition respect. He also lacks influence in the big games and has never dominated in those big moments.
I am not saying Matfield will be the answer. I am saying explore whether he still has the appetite to potentially be a solution.
Meyer has to assemble a squad of 32 players good enough to start a Test match if the Boks are to reclaim the World Cup in 2015. He also has to invest in a squad of quality and not just a starting XV of quality if the Boks are to win consistently and not lose eight out of nine Tests to the All Blacks, who have consistently been the world’s best team.
South African administrators, selectors, coaches, rugby media and rugby public have always had no issue with retiring good international players too early. There is an obsession with youth and there is an unhealthy obsession with wanting to change for the sake of change after a World Cup cycle.
The great Test teams are usually a mixture of hardened veterans and special youngsters. The great Test teams also usually have the best players in the world in crucial decision-making positions.
Du Preez gives the Boks that X factor at scrumhalf, Jean de Villiers does it at inside centre and Bismarck du Plessis has the capacity to do it at hooker. But at lock there isn’t that Commander in Chief yet. Etzebeth, the young gun, needs the old hand working the partnership. He needs someone calling the lineouts and he needs someone making the decisions, which will free him up to play his natural game and learn from the best lineout decision-maker in the game. That man was and is Matfield.
Meyer has to be bold and Matfield has to be brave. Neither should die wondering what could have been.
Brad Thorn was monumental for the All Blacks at the 2011 World Cup. Many considered him a year too old at 36 in 2011, but in the biggest game of his life and in New Zealand rugby’s biggest game the big man fronted big time on an emotional level as much as physically in the All Blacks’ World Cup final win against France.
The need to balance experience with youth at Test level cannot be overstated. Test rugby is not Super Rugby and Currie Cup rugby and Top 14 and European Cup rugby. It is an environment that requires men who have been to some dark rugby places and not just enthusiastic kids who have only known the sport’s sunshine.
Matfield will only know if he still wants it if he plays in 2014, and the approach has to be one that looks after the legendary lock and doesn’t look to embarrass him.
If Matfield has the desire, he will still be good enough. Class is permanent. It would be in how any comeback is managed at Super Rugby. He doesn’t have to prove anything.
The Bulls could play him as a coach/player. He could be earmarked to play 40 or 50% of the games to gauge his appetite and influence. He could be reintegrated through short bursts and cameo performances. It can be done.
If there’s enough in those performances, it at least gives Meyer the chance to invest in the legend of Matfield as a short-term World Cup solution.
If it doesn’t work out in Super Rugby and the player’s body and mind don’t stand up to the scrutiny, Meyer will at least know that Matfield is a name that belongs to past heroics. If it isn’t tried, we will never know.
The reality also is that the Springboks have moved ahead of the chasing pack to be the world’s No 2 side, but they are not yet good enough to be spoken of as the world’s best team.
There have been advancements in Meyer’s second season. The squad is more settled, the selections have been consistent and an attacking element has been added.
Willie le Roux and Jan Serfontein have been good selections. Both players have the attacking X factor. JJ Engelbrecht, at No 13, is doing more of a holding job until Jaque Fourie returns from a three-year rugby spell in Japan and flyhalf Morne Steyn, for all his solidity, would make way for a fit and functional Johan Goosen.
Springbok veterans Schalk Burger and Pierre Spies would add value to the depth of any national squad and the thinking in relation to players of their ability has to extend beyond who is starting as the Bok loose trio.
The highest attrition rate is among loose forwards. Duane Vermeulen, Willem Alberts and Francois Louw have been effective and very good as a starting loose trio. Siya Kolisi and Marcell Coetzee are quality players but the more the merrier when it comes to loose-forward depth.
Burger and Spies must be looked after. They remain an investment, if not as starting options then definitely within the framework of a national squad.
I have long argued that the Boks would be a better match squad with Etzebeth and Botha among the 23 names.
Lions lock Franco van der Merwe is not Bakkies Botha. But it was Van der Merwe to whom Meyer felt he had to go in the Rugby Championship decider against the All Blacks at Ellis Park.
Meyer, in his two seasons, has shown an appreciation for the requirements of Test rugby. He has learned fast but he, like his players, made crucial mistakes in the 38-27 defeat against the All Blacks. Meyer’s tactical substitutions were not good enough and his All Blacks counterpart Steve Hansen had the edge in game plan.
The All Blacks are the undisputed champions of world rugby. They’ve won at altitude in their last three visits and each time they have come from behind to win emphatically.
For the Boks to challenge their dominance at a neutral venue, which is where the World Cup will be played in 2015, is going to require assessing the Matfield situation, taking a closer look at Botha, hoping Goosen’s body holds up and in making the call that Bismarck du Plessis is the starting hooker.