Cape Town - Three very recent developments have conspired to
increase the risk that Victor Matfield doesn’t get quite the fulsome World Cup
2015 role many would have expected several weeks back.
First his incredibly untimely hamstring injury, suffered early
on while leading the Springboks in their Castle Rugby Championship opener
against Australia in Brisbane, could perhaps be seen as a little reminder - and
this to a player traditionally pretty injury-free - that the sands of time are
running out for the 38-year-old.
It came despite the delicate management of his workload at
all levels this year, designed to get him safely through a phenomenal fourth
personal RWC (he is a 2007 winner) in England from next month.
The next development, and hardly unrelated, was the
22-year-old beanpole Lood de Jager filling his shoes off the bench for an hour
in the heart-breaking, late 24-20 loss: the Cheetahs man made a tremendous
impact in just about all areas, earning Sport24’s laurel as Bok player of the
match despite not starting it.
Though not considered the most natural of No 5s, the way he
adapted as Eben Etzebeth’s second-row partner was seriously illuminating.
Coach Heyneke Meyer wasted no time in extending their
alliance - this time as starting combo - for the challenge of the All Blacks in
Johannesburg, a game in which South Africa again bossed enough areas to have
won, although they were eventually outfoxed 27-20.
But the tall-timber, robust pair put themselves about with
aplomb all over again, not being cowed in the slightest by the presence of
world player of the year Brodie Retallick and making James Broadhurst’s debut
an innocuous one.
Etzebeth and De Jager are teamed up again for the closing
Championship fixture against Argentina at Kings Park on Saturday (17:05
kickoff) and a third assertive performance on the trot is going to make it very
hard for Meyer to reinstate Matfield once fit again – and with the World Cup
now just a matter of weeks away.
The youthful vigour, mobility and constructive aggression
displayed by the new pairing has been a pleasing hallmark of the last two big
Test matches, despite the final scoreboard each time suggesting the Boks still
have work to do in other departments.
Both players feature prominently among the statistics from
the first two rounds of the Championship, with De Jager fourth tournament-wide
for tackles made (26) and the most industrious lock, coming as he does behind
leader Schalk Burger and two other loose forwards in Kieran Read and Richie
Etzebeth is breathing down his ally’s neck with 25 tackles,
whilst in lineout terms De Jager lies second (9) only to Wallaby Rob Simmons
(11) - Etzebeth is fifth with seven.
Between them, the new Bok combination have currently amassed
46 Test caps, which will hardly make them callow rookies going into the major
demands of the World Cup: the in-form, 23-year-old Etzebeth admittedly sports
35 of them and De Jager’s 11 appearances in green and gold include only four
But the latter is developing at a rate of knots nevertheless
and hardly seems a possible weak link in Bok plans at RWC.
A third complication for Matfield’s return is that another
emerging No 5 powerhouse in Pieter-Steph du Toit - though cruelly jinxed by
serious injuries in the last couple of years - makes his return to the Bok
bench for Saturday’s encounter with the Pumas.
It remains difficult to believe the 122-cap Matfield, an
absolute legend of lineout play, isn’t going to be part of the 31-strong Bok
squad for the RWC.
He remains an uncanny reader and spoiler of opposition plans
at that set-piece, as well as retaining spring-heeled athletic qualities
himself, despite the drawback of advanced age.
The sight of Matfield in the Bok mix must still send a fair
few shivers down the spines of rival hookers as they prepare to throw in the
But can the Bulls icon, and winner of tons of silverware at
all levels, possibly still match someone like De Jager for sheer grunt in the
tight-loose and muscle in the scrum?
It is because of pressing questions like those that Matfield
looks increasingly as though his rich mentoring skills off the park are going
to be his main assets to the cause at the RWC, rather than vast amounts of game
time as a starter.
Considering the “bench blues” the Boks have had of late,
however, Matfield seems more and more a great candidate to bring his calming
presence to the closing stages of tight Bok games.
“Matfield’s experience does count,” another World
Cup-winning lock, Kobus Wiese, pointed out in an interview with Sport24 ahead
of the All Blacks Test recently. “But I don’t believe his absence (for that
specific Test) will prove a major loss.
“He is still a world-class lineout forward, but his physical
presence at this stage is not that big a factor. In terms of loose play,
Matfield is definitely past his best.”
Subsequently, 1995 hero Wiese is unlikely to have tempered
his view in the slightest, don’t you think?
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