Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Lock legend Victor Matfield, in the absence of a healthy list of specialist candidates, stubbornly continues to be linked to the vacant Bulls head coaching post in Super Rugby.
The 2019 season in that competition opens at home for the Pretoria-based franchise against arch-rivals the Stormers on February 16 – now well less than four months away.
The Bull administration, still grappling with the matter of who should succeed New Zealander John Mitchell, desires putting in place a coach who “understands the Loftus culture”.
It is known – at least partly for that reason -- that a still significant faction in the corridors of power there had held out some hope of coaxing Heyneke Meyer back for a crack at reliving the glory days for the Bulls.
But Meyer, Springbok head coach between 2012 and 2015, is currently committed to his new head-of-rugby gig with Stade Francais, an outfit seemingly on the ascent again – they lie second in the Top 14 after occupying the nether regions last season.
Under his patient, conscientious guidance, and despite initial traumas, the Bulls rose to become maiden Super Rugby title-winners in 2007, creating a platform that also saw them push on to further successes in 2009 and 2010 under Frans Ludeke, now with Kubota Spears in Japan.
But recent seasons have seen the Bulls generally among the also-rans in the SANZAAR competition.
If the argument that you should buy shares when they are “down” applies at Loftus, then whoever takes the job for 2019 really has little to lose, and we did see signs of some meaningful, exciting young talent coming to the fore in Saturday’s Currie Cup semi-final, where the heavy-underdog Blue Bulls (coached by Pote Human, who has on-and-off associations with Loftus stretching back to 2005) came within a very whisker of humbling Western Province at Newlands.
Despite the very public suggestion by seldom quiet RWC 2007-winning Bok coach Jake White that it is too early for Matfield – and his possible lieutenant and fellow playing genius Fourie du Preez – to coach at Super Rugby level, the lanky second-rower and television pundit has already retorted (perhaps only adding ammunition to the theory that he is genuinely keen?) that prominent ex-players like Rassie Erasmus and cricketer Mark Boucher have taken to the task swiftly and well.
Indeed, there are certain, unmistakable shades of the current Bok coach, Erasmus, in the “scientific” zest and diligence of research Matfield clearly possesses: it has been evident in some of his SuperSport punditry, where he often enough makes points backed up by technological data and indicative of promising levels of own grey matter.
The 41-year-old also strikes this writer as an astute selector, based on his studio observations on chat shows or in live presentations of major matches.
Picking players soundly, after all, is a key function of any credible head coach, while it is stating the obvious that he is a dedicated and canny dissector of lineout strategies and enemy coding in that far from unimportant specialist area of play – it extends into mauling, both from an attack and defence perspective, and the like.
He has also cut his teeth usefully already in back-up coaching capacities at both Loftus and down the highway with the Lions in Johannesburg.
Matfield, whose playing times at Loftus spanned an enormous 14 years – albeit with some interruptions – is also suitably world-wise, when you consider his pro tenures with both Toulon in France and Northampton in England, and the ability, all the while, to observe what makes different off-field masterminds tick and how they command (or don’t, in some cases) the dressing room.
Possessing what seems a fairly demure, less than ego-bedevilled personality, he would also be the likely beneficiary of reasonable patience from the Bulls faithful, given the esteem in which he is held as one of the ground’s all-time favourite playing sons.
Apart from boasting more than a handful of winner’s medals with the franchise – three Super Rugby titles, three Currie Cups – his overall contribution to rugby in the region was recognised in 2008 with his induction to the University of Pretoria’s hall of fame.
Put it this way: unless a heavyweight, alternative CV suddenly lands at Loftus from an established, top-notch coaching figure, there would be infinitely more crackpot things to do than give Victor Matfield a daring – yet also highly intriguing -- stab at the post …
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