‘The greatest Springbok that's ever been'

2011-12-13 00:00

HE looks like a pirate, and at times he has acted like one, but Victor Matfield will be remembered as one of the most influential and successful players in the history­ of South African rugby.

The 34-year-old Matfield has announced his retirement from the game, ending a career­ which has spanned over a decade of Test rugby and 14 years in the provincial game. There were exciting pit stops on the way, to pick up one World Cup trophy, two Tri-Nations titles and a satisfying series win over the 2009 British Lions. There were also three Super Rugby and three Currie Cup titles for the Bulls and numerous accolades and international awards.

And now his autobiography, Victor: My Journey, confirms his race is indeed run.

Intelligent, well-spoken and respected, Matfield made a massive impact on the game, both while playing for the Blue Bulls and the Springboks.

Long-serving Springbok captain John Smit holds back little when he talks of Matfield­.

“I could sit here for an hour speaking about the value and contribution he has made to South Africa. He’s a huge player ... the greatest Springbok that’s ever been.”

Smit and Matfield have travelled a long road together and both bowed out after the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand. Smit played in 111 Tests, but had to fight off the challenge of the emerging Bismarck du Plessis in his final years. Matfield stood tall and alone in his position, an almost automatic choice throughout his 110-cap career and was still regarded as the best line-out jumper in world rugby when he quit.

But it was the way Matfield played his rugby, the skill he showed in a most robust and often brutal game which was his hallmark. And he did it all in one of the toughest arenas in world sport, in the middle of the scrum where fists and boots fly, and no one can afford to take a backwards step.

Matfield was an archetype of the modern lock forward, one built to play a mobile game, but tough enough to absorb the bruises, one able to exploit the changing laws which allowed early support in the line-outs and lifting while also contributing around the field like a loose forward.

A relatively light 108 kilograms and two metres tall with a spring in his step, Matfield could be easily hoisted in the line-outs. His line-out skills were sublime and he was internationally respected for his ability to analyse and dominate opposing jumpers.

Matfield, throughout his long career, remained gracious in defeat and victory, but admits he made major blunders and learnt valuable lessons on the way.

The first came in the barefoot days when he was captain of the U8 team at Pietersburg North Primary. Embarrassed by their cross-town rivals and down by 40 points, Matfield instructed his team to run away and hide behind the pavilion at the final whistle. But he did not reckon on his redoubtable parents. Mrs Matfield pursued him, grabbed him by the ear and forced him to seek out all his opponents and thank them for the game, and then, on his return home, he was soundly spanked by his father­.

He clashed almost from the start with new Bok coach Jake White in 2004. White took an immediate dislike to Matfield’s flowing locks and told him he would never captain the Springboks with long hair. (Unfortunately, Matfield’s wife of a few months, Monja, fancied his long hair and there was always only going to be one winner.)

It came to a head on the Tri-Nations tour down under when White (“sny hare en soek werk”) told Matfield he was a show pony and he was sent home early from Australia.

After a later meeting with White, arranged by Bulls coach Heyneke Meyer, our hero conceded that he was indeed, too, fond of the limelight. He not only changed his ways, he says, but even trimmed his hair.

But the White-Matfield truce was always an uneasy one and it almost came to blows at the end of 2007, and just months after the RWC triumph in France. Matfield, in what he admits was not the most diplomatic of statements, told White that the Blue Bulls’ Heyneke Meyer was the better coach. White was furious and grabbed Matfield by the collar before sanity reigned.

The darkest days of Matfield’s career, unsurprisingly, came in the build-up to the 2003 RWC with the widely publicised Kamp Staaldraad and the allegations of racism. But what has been kept under wraps is a clash between wing Ashwin Willemse, now a television pundit, and burly hooker Dale Santon at a training camp just weeks later. Straeuli told them to sort out their problems in front of the squad.

Santon, at 106 kgs, was far bigger than Willemse (92 kgs) “but Ashwin was a tough customer who had run with the street gangs in the Cape”, says Matfield.

“The blood flowed and Dale had to be stitched up afterwards. It was a pretty sensational incident but it was hushed up. I wonder what would have happened if the scrap had occurred between two players of different races.”

The Bulls captain remained close to Smit throughout their parallel careers. He regarded the Sharks front-rower as the “greatest captain in Springbok history”, but this also left him facing a dilemma when Smit, on the eve of the RWC, asked Matfield whether he should be the first-choice hooker at the RWC.

The whole of South Africa was in a tizz over whether Smit, the world-class captain, or Du Plessis, the world-class hooker, should be chosen. Well, if it is any consolation to the rugby public, even Matfield was uncertain.

“I didn’t know what the answer was,” says Matfield, adding that Smit was ready to move to the bench or withdraw completely if that was best for the Boks.

It was decided, finally, that the duties would be shared and Matfield believes it was too late to make a captaincy change shortly before the RWC. He says that Smit played “excellent rugby” in New Zealand, most of the players supported his selection and the RWC was not lost because he was the first-choice hooker.

For all his international fame and high profile, Matfield remains a homebody, close to his wife, his two daughters and Pretoria. He is also religious and attended weekly Bible­-study groups with players in both the Bulls and the Springbok squads when they toured.

And, incidentally, Matfield does not want to be a pirate. His dream is now to coach the Springboks, win the Rugby World Cup and return to carry the Webb Ellis Cup on his shoulder ... again.

• Victor: My Journey by Victor Matfield with De Jongh Borchardt (Zebra Press, Cape Town). 330 pages. R220.

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