Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, former Springbok lock VICTOR MATFIELD chats hanging up his boots, why Heyneke Meyer is one of the best coaches in the world and the Bulls v Stormers match on Saturday.
Sport24 asked: From a shy boy from Pietersburg to a world star. How would you describe the ride?
Victor Matfield: It’s been a crazy and highly memorable journey. I was just an average Joe from a small town and I don’t feel that I was ever the most talented rugby player. However, I believe my love for the game and work ethic led to my longevity and allowed me to earn 127 Test matches for the Springboks between 2001 and 2015. My motto has always been that “champions train when others rest” and it’s not always the guy with the most talent who is successful. You have to possess the desire to work harder than anyone else and be prepared to put in the hours. I was able to play until the age of 39 because I loved the game and didn’t see hard work as sacrifice. I must also add that the unconditional support I received throughout my career – firstly from my parents and later from my wonderful wife, Monja and children – proved a real source of inspiration from which I drew.
Sport24 asked: You spent your final season as a player with the Saints. How was that experience?
Victor Matfield: I learnt a lot from my season with Northampton Saints, but it also proved a frustrating time for me. I went over to the UK with the notion that we would spend some quality time together as a family. However, I ended up spending most of my alone, which wasn’t the easiest experience. My girls really missed seeing their friends in South Africa and playing their favourite sports so they returned home with my wife. While it was challenging for me on a domestic front, I enjoyed a different rugby environment and took some mental notes for if and when I return to the world of coaching. Owing to the conditions in the UK, where the weather is wet for 80% of the season and the pitches are in poor condition, they scrum and maul for penalties and almost don’t use the set-piece as a platform from which to attack. The tempo is much quicker in Super Rugby than the Aviva Premiership, but both competitions have strong points. I hope to share my learnings if and when the opportunity arises for me to return to coaching. I was signed on at the Bulls for another three years, but things didn’t work out the way I thought they should so I missed out in terms of that coaching opportunity. Once you are out of coaching, it can prove difficult to get back into it, but I’ll cross that bridge when I get there. For now, I’m focusing on interests outside of rugby.
Sport24 asked: Heyneke Meyer has been linked with a move to Bath. What value would he offer?
Victor Matfield: Heyneke is one of the best coaches in the world so it would be great to see him back in the fold. For my money, he would prove an asset for any team and if a club wants someone to sell them a vision, for say the next six years, then he’s their man. Not only is Heyneke a successful man-motivator, but the way he put systems in place and develops an organisation from the bottom-up is really impressive. I believe his biggest strength is his ability to build a sustainable project which allows a team to be successful over a long period of time. He did that when he was in charge at the Bulls and could do something similar at another club if afforded the necessary time and resources. He has very strong beliefs in terms of how things should work within a rugby set-up. He has a real focus on fitness, skill-levels and developing young players in order to create long-term sustainability.
Sport24 asked: With Allister Coetzee at the national helm, can we expect a different style of play?
Victor Matfield: I believe people talk too much about different playing styles. For me, rugby has always been about decision making. For example, one day you might have to kick 50 times in a match and on other occasions you might only have to kick twice. The Lions play a fantastic brand of rugby and I love watching them, but there are times when they play too much rugby. Meanwhile, there have been some matches where the Bulls have played the game too slowly. Therefore, it’s all about decision making on the day and, as coaches, we have to upskill our players so that they are capable of playing any type of game and able to make the correct decisions at the right times. That is where New Zealand is in front of everyone else at the moment. And in terms of skill-level, the Kiwi forwards can probably pass the ball just as well as their backs. If we want to play a game in SA whereby our players are able to pass and offload, we must focus on skills-training from a young age.
Sport24 asked: The Bulls have signed Jacques Potgieter from the Sharks. A smart bit of business?
Victor Matfield: Yes, he is quality player. In the old days, I remember he was all about physicality, but since his two-year stint with the Waratahs he has more strings to his bow. He grew as a player and person during his spell in Australia and I was really impressed with how he communicated and organised on the field. Potgieter is now a more complete rugby player and it will be very interesting to see how the Bulls are going to utilise him when he returns to full fitness and is ready for selection.
Sport24 asked: You formed a potent lock partnership with Bakkies Botha. Why did you complement each other so well, and could Eben Etzebeth and Pieter-Steph du Toit do the same?
Victor Matfield: I believe Bakkies and I were so successful as a lock combination because we were completely different players. My weaknesses were his strengths and his weaknesses were my strengths. With Bakkies in the team, I didn’t have to worry about anything – I could just focus on running the lineout and captaining the side. He would sort out anyone that got too close to me. While Eben has settled himself into the N0 4 Bok jersey, in my opinion, Pieter-Steph has to compete with Lood de Jager for the N0 5 jumper. Last season, De Jager was outstanding whenever he played for club and country. Many people are excited to see Etzebeth and Du Toit combine at lock for South Africa, but I feel that they’re pretty much the same type of player. If I was asked to select a lock pairing, I would prefer it if the one player fulfilled the physical, ball-carrying role and hit the rucks, while the other lock played a bit wider, focused on the lineouts and really ran that part of the game.
Sport24 asked: The Bulls host the Stormers at Loftus on Saturday. Offer your outlook for the game.
Victor Matfield: While the pack of forwards will be very important in setting the tone, and I will keep a close eye on Etzebeth, Du Toit and RG Snyman, who has been playing really well, I believe the contest could rest on the decision making at ten. Both teams boast fairly inexperienced flyhalves at Super Rugby level. How Francois Brummer and Jean-Luc du Plessis control the game will prove pivotal to the overall outcome. I am heading to Loftus on Saturday along with a few of my mates. And, for what feel like the first time, I’ll be able to enjoy the match without stressing about anything.