Johannesburg - Just a few months ago it would have been unthinkable, but the stage is set now for Victor Matfield to lead the Springboks into battle this year not only as a player, but possibly also as captain.
According to the supersport.com website, with Jean de Villiers out for eight weeks with injury, Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer will have to find a new leader for the team as they head into four hard test weeks in June before embarking on a very important Castle Rugby Championship a year before the World Cup.
Much has been said about Matfield’s return to the playing field after he retired after the 2011 Rugby World Cup, but even now there can be few who don’t believe he is up to international rugby, even at the ripe old age of 37.
The Bok lock has made it clear his ambition is to play to the next World Cup in 2015 in England and all his energy is being focused on trying to make that squad.
But with De Villiers’ injury, a new opportunity has presented itself and it would be foolhardy to believe that Meyer would not seriously consider Matfield as his next captain.
The relationship between the two is well-documented and Matfield has been a long term captain under Meyer before, with the two building up a great working relationship together.
And if you consider that just 12 months ago there were genuine questionmarks about who the next Springbok captain would be, the situation looks a lot rosier this time around.
The return of several stalwarts means that the leadership group in the Springboks has grown and even if Matfield is not the captain-elect, there are now several candidates that can fill the role.
The key question for Meyer will be just how certain the player is of his place in the team, how his role fits into the team environment and the leadership attributes he brings to the side.
There is no doubt that Matfield ticks all these boxes and with over 100 test caps has more than his share of experience that will aid the Boks this year. With the dearth of five locks who are fit and able at the moment, there is definitely an opportunity to use him more and there is no doubt he will start the Bok tests in June as the five lock.
The other candidates present a dilemma for Meyer. For one, no Springbok captain has ever been based outside the country, and it is unlikely that this will change soon.
The practical implications of appointing a Bok captain who is gone for the majority of the year are not good for the marketing of the game, neither for the face of SA Rugby, who are still desperately trying to keep as many players in South Africa against the lure of the Euro, Pound and Yen.
While they are certainly likely to play an important role in the senior leadership group, that all but rules out the likes of Francois Louw and Fourie du Preez, both of whom would be ideal candidates to lead the team in other circumstances.
This leaves the other two Super Rugby captains also in the running, with Bismarck du Plessis doing well with a Cell C Sharks team riding the wave of form at the moment, while few would doubt that Adriaan Strauss is the heart and soul of the Toyota Cheetahs team and despite their struggling form, the hooker remains one of the top players in World rugby.
The problem for Meyer is that with the demands of international rugby, to appoint one as captain while De Villiers is away would hamper his opportunity to rotate the two hookers as he needs them this international season.
Both can lead a team with ease but there are good arguments for both to start in certain test matches, and as a coach Meyer will want to get the best out of both players.
The only other real candidate to lead the Boks into battle this June is Flip van der Merwe, who has done well with the Vodacom Bulls but will also be the first to admit that the other candidates not only have more captaincy experience at test level, but also have more of a claim on the job than him. Schalk Burger can also do a job but there is the real questionmark of whether he can warrant a starting role in the current team with the loose trio functioning well at the moment.
In the end the decision will come down to Meyer, who has praised De Villiers over and over as an exceptional captain and it is unlikely he will change his role in the long-term.
Matfield may, of course, not want the extra responsibility at this stage as he makes his comeback to international rugby and chases his goal of making the World Cup squad.
But Meyer is a coach who holds a lot of sway over his players, and it won’t therefore be a surprise to see Matfield lead the team at some stage – if not June – in the Green and Gold.