Rugby Championship

RWC: Matfield has work cut out

2015-08-06 13:16
Victor Matfield (Gallo Images)

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 McCaw.

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 starts.

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 ball.

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?

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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