The evergreen Victor Matfield
June 12, 2014
Victor Matfield has been in the form of his life for the Bulls © Getty Images
There is a certain kind of cheer reserved for true champions. It is not the delightful din that accompanies simply somewhere, such as a live sporting event. It is not the audible waves of expectation and disappointment that swell and break over the course of a match, neither is it an exclamation of the emotions which follow the final whistle. It is the call that knows no limits like the one that exploded over Newlands last Saturday when Victor Matfield led the Springboks out to face the World XV.
The lock had not been seen in green and gold since October 2011 and the mere sight of him sent the crowd into a frenzy. The excitement bled through to the broadcast and almost drowned out Heyneke Meyer's sentiment. "If anyone told me two years ago that Victor and Bakkies would play together again for the Boks, I probably wouldn't have believed it," Meyer said. "There will definitely be a little twinkle in my eye when they get out there."
Five minutes into the game, Meyer's tears would have been of frustration. The Springboks conceded a penalty and a try and looked rustier than the coach would have liked. By half-time they had wrestled the lead but still seemed some way from convincing. That was when Matfield stepped up.
Meyer credited him with delivering the motivation that spurred the Springboks into life. On the return, they were merciless on the driving maul, which led to Bismarck du Plessis' brace of tries and touched down twice more before the end of the game. The final scoreline buried any unease about their form heading into the international window proper and rubber-stamped Meyer's choice of giving Matfield the armband to cap off what has been a champagne return for the veteran.
"He has turned the history of comebacks on its head. Most end in tears but Victor has been the exception to the rule," Morne du Plessis, the former Springbok captain told ESPN. "He doesn't look like he skipped a beat."
That's because Matfield pretty much hasn't. He was in training from August last year and even spent time with Springbok conditioning coach Basil Carzis in October, when rumours began that he was reviewing his retirement.
At the time, he was the forwards coach of the Bulls - a job the administration wanted him to have so much they helped relieve him from his contract as a television analyst with SuperSport - to take up. Bulls president Louis Nel said then, "I won't say we won't entertain it but that is a matter that would have to be tabled before the board when we meet."
In February, he made his comeback in Super Rugby, with an aim to impress Meyer enough to merit a national call-up. Meyer, who had Matfield as his captain when he coached the Bulls, made it clear Matfield would not earn a place on reputation alone and would have to prove his worth despite his record. Luckily for Matfield, circumstances conspired to allow him to do that.
When Bulls' captain Flip van der Merwe picked up a hamstring injury in March, Matfield was asked to take over. In his first match in charge, he inspired the team to a 23-19 win over the Sharks and under him, they maintained their unbeaten run at home.
Matfield was left out of the team as planned when the Bulls first went on tour but the gap he left was obvious. Against the Hurricanes, their line-out was weak and they lacked leadership. They also lost Deon Stegmann and Dewald Potgieter to injury which forced the Bulls to call on Matfield for their second match on the road. He played that one, the remaining two and three more matches on their return home. His commitment to the cause was unmissable and suggested dedication few can match. "Victor carries great respect because of things like that," du Plessis said.
He is back in green and gold © Getty Images
Meyer could not overlook that loyalty. Matfield would be recalled and when Jean de Villiers was ruled out of the June internationals, Matfield was more than just the popular choice to take over. He was also the pragmatic one. "Heyneke has had to rely on older hands, guys like Bakkies Botha, who I think is playing the best rugby of his career, and Schalk Burger but that's not a bad thing," du Plessis said. "The best combination is a solid block of experience sprinkled with exciting young talent. If you look at all the great sports teams, they have had that balance."
Maintaining that equilibrium will be crucial ahead of next year's World Cup, which, although 15 months away, will be somewhere on Meyer's mind. Matfield has indicated his desire to compete in it and a strong showing over the next three weeks will be crucial to those hopes.
But more pressing will be the need to provide stability as the Springboks teeter on a mini-crisis. Four days before the first match, Frans Steyn withdrew from the squad and was said to be considering his international future. The timing of his decision and the whispers of contractual disagreement is far from ideal, even if the incoming tour is not considered as challenging as if, say England or the British and Irish Lions were visiting.
South Africa have only ever lost one match to Wales and that was back in 1999. Although Wales won last year's Six Nations, they've hit patchy form and Springboks are expected to dominate. Defeat to Scotland came more recently, in 2010, but South Africa at home should be too much for Greig Laidlaw's lads.
The focus will be shared between the results and the spotlight being shone on the experienced core, and Matfield in particular. When he leads the Springboks this Saturday he will equal John Smit's record as the most capped South African player with 111 matches to his name. He will also become the oldest Springbok captain at 37 years and 33 days. By the end of the international window, he will be the oldest man to play for South Africa, surpassing Johann Ackermann's record of 37 years, 43 days.
Matfield is already acknowledged as the best line-out specialist in the world; now he has the chance to further his legend in every other way. And he will receive a champion's cheer throughout.
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