The bad luck that dogged Victor Matfield's start in a Springbok jersey

Victor Matfield. (Gallo Images)
Victor Matfield. (Gallo Images)
  • Victor Matfield was one of the greatest players ever to don a Springbok jersey, but the former lock gave everyone a quirky reminder of the rough start to his international career.
  • He was dogged by bad luck after breaking into then national coach Harry Viljoen's squad, notably injuring a knee 75 minutes before his named being read out.
  • But that setback was less dramatic than his starting debut, which was characterised by bronchitis in the build-up (which he hid) and an eventual concussion.

Victor Matfield ended a storied 127-cap international career as one of the greatest locks of his generation.

A World Cup and two Super Rugby titles, in which he played instrumental roles, were merely the most prominent examples of his influences.

However, almost adding to the magnitude of his achievements, is the fact that his start in the green and gold was riddled with some bad luck.

Following a superb inaugural Super Rugby campaign with the then lowly Bulls in 2001, Matfield was a shoo-in for Harry Viljoen's national squad.

"I've actually got a bit of a longer story building up to my debut," the 43-year-old told a webinar hosted by The Players' Fund.

"I played for the Springboks' midweek team on the year-end tour of 2000, but no Tests. The next season I moved from Griquas to the Bulls and I really thought I had a good Super Rugby.

"Going into the last game of the season (against the Cats at Ellis Park), Danie van Schalkwyk - who played centre for the Boks - came to me during the warm-up. He told me the Bok squad is getting named afterwards and I'd definitely be there."

Endearing as the gesture was, Van Schalkwyk then said something that would leave superstitious people flustered.

"He then jokingly 'advised' me: 'Just don't get injured, please.'," said Matfield.

Five minutes into the Gauteng derby, he injured medial ligaments in his knee and had to sit out for six weeks.

"The Bok squad got announced and my name was read out. But I obviously had to pull out."

Matfield's skillset was sorely missed in a one-all series draw with France, which reflected badly on the Boks as they'd been widely expected to hammer a weakened opposition.

The tide seemed to turn for him a month later.

The Bulls were participating in the SAIL running rugby tournament (the company had shares in various unions at the time) in Port Elizabeth, where Matfield made his comeback from injury.

"As it turned out, the Boks were playing Italy in the city the next week. I got called up and joined them. It was a great opportunity," he said.

"Rassie Erasmus came to me during the week and told me that he didn't think he'd play, so I might get a chance in the match squad. I played off the bench with some great players."

Despite only appearing for 12 minutes, Viljoen considered Matfield so integral to his plans that he elevated him into the starting line-up for a Tri-Nations opener against the All Blacks at Newlands.

"That game felt like my first real game for the Springboks. As it should happen, I got the flu that week.

"I shared a room with tighthead Cobus Visagie. I remember coughing the whole time on the Friday night. I couldn't breathe. Eventually I went to the bathroom to cough just because I was scared of waking him up. After all, I was a rookie and he a senior player."

Bronchitis had struck.

"But I wasn't going to say anything," Matfield said with a wry smile.

He did make it onto the field, but had to use an inhaler at virtually every break in play.

Even a finger in the eye by Kiwi hooker Anton Oliver wasn't enough to get him off the pitch until the 62nd minute, when a concussion unceremoniously ended his starting debut.

"It wasn't the easiest of starts. But you just can't explain to someone the privilege of representing your country. I always counted my blessings," said Matfield. 

- Compiled by Heinz Schenk 

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