Too much rugby for Matfield?
I read a story on a British newspaper’s website this week, suggesting that these are “heady days” for veteran rugby players (certainly as far as the northern hemisphere is concerned) ... something rather flying in the face of fears that the modern game should, instead, be shortening careers.
Interestingly, tight forwards seem to be flourishing better than most in twilight phases of their rugby lives, some prominent 37-year-old internationals cited as examples including lock Simon Shaw (Wasps) and props Julian White (Leicester) and John Hayes (Munster).
And there is even the case of Danny Grewcock, the England second-row stalwart of the Martin Johnson era still going pretty strong for Bath at a particularly ripe 38.
Defying scientific expectations that career spans should be shrinking in this age of especially punishing contact and just as brutal scheduling, the article suggested a counter-balance was “phenomenal advances in medical care, fitness and recovery programmes ... and commitment to enforced rest periods”.
If you judged him in terms of the apparent UK trend for “oldies” thriving, Springbok and Bulls lineout ace Victor Matfield is a relative spring chicken: the bearded lock turns 34 next month.
Realistically, of course, he has nevertheless reached an age where cautious “management” appears to be a sensible course of action.
And my fear, with the 2011 World Cup now less than six months away, is that the “enforced rest” mentioned above does not appear to be applying – certainly not yet, anyway -- to this key Bok tall timber and still-unmatched lineout “professor”.
Let’s not forget how extraordinarily taxing a year Matfield had in 2010: first he led the Bulls to retention of the Super 14 title, and then his international season contained more in the way of personal responsibility (including generous periods of captaincy) than any Bok colleague.
He played 13 of the 14 Tests by South Africa, only sitting out the second of two against limited Italy in East London.
Matfield was captain – with all the extra cares that carries – in every Test of the Grand Slam tour at the end of the year ... and had also insisted on making himself available for that questionable once-off Test against Wales in Cardiff in mid-year, just a week after the Super 14 final in Soweto.
So the veteran could barely be said to have had an off-season, especially as he was back at his seemingly perennial post at the helm of the Bulls when the greatly stretched Super Rugby season kicked off several weeks ago.
And as has so often been the case during his many years in this competition, Matfield invariably is the Bulls lock who plays the full 80 minutes: their second-row strategy tends to revolve around Bakkies Botha coming off after an hour of grunt, and being replaced by someone like Flip van der Merwe, whilst the skipper and more “athletic” foil to Botha sticks it out to the bitter end.
There is almost certainly greater lock depth at Loftus than at any other Super Rugby franchise, when you add Van der Merwe, Juandre Kruger and versatile Danie Rossouw to the old firm.
And yet “rotation” – that often all-too-elusive phenomenon – doesn’t seem to be too high on coach Frans Ludeke’s agenda.
Nor, you would think, will it come onto the radar too quickly, with the champions a slightly precarious sixth on the overall table after two defeats and more in wildcard terrain at present than as likely SA conference table-toppers.
So there will be few easy dates ahead for the Bulls, and Matfield’s prowess at lineout time will be as sought-after a commodity as ever – including this Saturday, for example, when the possibility of his ruling the skies at Timaru (including giving the opposition hooker and jumpers the yips) will be crucial to the Bulls’ dart at upsetting the formidable Crusaders.
One thing that perhaps needs to be said in defence of Ludeke’s “Play Victor every time, and for every minute” formula is that the player himself appears to be a start-aholic, deeply reluctant to sit out action for either franchise or country.
Presumably Matfield knows better than anyone, too, considering that his first-class career is well into its second decade, of his own body’s state of well-being and durability from one season to another.
But with national coach Peter de Villiers already making noises suggesting the Tri-Nations will not be significantly used as a vehicle for rotation purposes, nor that “soft” matches against the likes of Namibia at the World Cup itself will feature heaps of second-stringers, I am just a little concerned about the prospect of the Boks finding one of the major, ageing weapons in their defence of the RWC crown suddenly getting jaded at a most inconvenient time.
Reports of a few gnarly old customers holding their own in UK club rugby don’t automatically do much to allay that fear, either!
Just a bit of cocooning for Matfield over the next few months, wherever it may be considered possible, could benefit both player and country, whether the big fellow desires it or not.
And if omitting him from a run-on XV is so seemingly sacrilegious, the occasional game where he only plays 55-60 minutes himself, for a change, wouldn’t do any harm, would it?
Rob Houwing is Sport24’s chief writer
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