Pretoria - Former Springbok captain Victor Matfield will play for the Bulls in this year’s Vodacom Super Rugby series - but don’t expect him to arrive back in the competition with a bang.
Accoridng to the supersport.com website, the Bok lock has been practising with the Bulls since early December, alternating between a player and coaching roles as the team prepares for the upcoming Southern Hemisphere season.
But while neither Matfield nor the Bulls want to publicly confirm his return yet, he has been given a green light by the coaching staff and fitness experts to resume his career, but still has to wait for an administrative clearance.
As SuperSport.com reported back in November, Matfield is seen by Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer as his answer to the lack of a quality number five lock at national level, and the Bok coach has wanted him back in the Springbok fold for a while now.
Matfield initially wanted to concentrate on a coaching role, mentoring young locks, but with no number five lock establishing himself in the first two years that Meyer has been in charge of the Boks, he was apparently convinced to make the comeback.
The Bok lock is only awaiting the clearance on both the Bulls and SARU side to restart his career, with this expected within days.
But once he gets back on the field, sources close to the Bulls have told supersport.com he will be used “sparingly” to ensure he is ready for international rugby and not specifically Super Rugby.
The Bulls plan to use him off the bench at first, and then to start him more in the latter part of the season, but he isn’t likely to be part of every single team during a vigorous Super Rugby season, and will likely fall back into a mentoring and coaching role in the weeks he doesn’t play.
The plan has been designed to give Matfield a chance to ease back into rugby, and ensure that he is at his peak when the Springboks play.
It is likely that he will be used sparingly at first by the Boks as well, brought in rather in a mentoring role, and that everything will be done to ensure he can play until after the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
The Bulls have been talking with their Springbok counterparts on how to ease him back into rugby for a while now, but have instructed Matfield to keep quiet until all the boxes have been ticked.
Having kept up his fitness levels through mountain-biking and various other activities, Matfield then started training under current Bok conditioning coach Basil Carzis before training further with current Bulls conditioning coach Andre Volsteedt in Pretoria.
Matfield’s fitness is certainly not under question – he runs in front when the Bulls do their fitness sessions and kept a remarkable fitness level for a 36-year old player. As possibly the finest lineout forward ever in the game, his technical levels are also good and the move into coaching will only have benefitted the way he sees the game and the decisions he takes on the field.
But the real question is how quickly he will adapt to the modern game, with rugby moving on since he last played in 2011.
If he can adapt fast, and the Bulls manage him well, the Boks could well use him in a similar role to the one that Bob Skinstad fulfilled for Jake White at the 2007 Rugby World Cup.
Skinstad, also two seasons out of rugby, returned and played his way into the Bok squad, and was instrumental in squad morale, mentoring the younger players and gave much experience to the dirt trackers at the Rugby World Cup.
And experience is something the Bok coach Meyer values very highly.
Matfield will play for the Bulls this season, that much is true. It is understandable that the public are sceptical given his age and the young stars that are coming through the ranks.
But that will only motivate Matfield further, as already those close to him tell of how his friends have told him he shouldn’t be playing again.
Matfield now sees this as a challenge and like so many before him, he won’t let age stand in his way as he tries to achieve another milestone.