Victor Matfield did not think anyone was watching but, coughing at the side of the interview room an hour after leading the Springboks to a thunderous victory, the captain’s warrior face crumpled into grimaces of agony.
His rib was “gone”, “broken”, “popped” – he wasn’t quite sure which – but even the pain killing injections at half-time had not been enough to deaden the obviously excruciating pain.
He had played for 73 minutes of this most physically brutal Test match in this debilitated state. “Yeah, sore. I tried to stay out of contact,” he mused with a smile. “But I couldn’t do it”.
Couldn’t do it? What a laugh. Matfield still went into the contact areas, broken rib and all, with such lack of inhibition you could recall Monty Python’s Black Knight dismissing his arm being chopped off with “’Tis but a scratch!”
Coach Peter de Villiers was told of the injury over the radio. “I just kept quiet because I knew he’d never come off even if I tried to take him off.” He wasn’t wrong. Matfield said he was okay. “I knew he wasn’t,” said de Villiers.
Yet Matfield was as awesome as ever, still toweringly instrumental not just in England’s death by line-out, but England’s strangulation by physicality, power, intensity and by that invisible but ever tangible quality of ferocious Bokke pride and passion.
The second Matfield’s rib went, smashed into by Chris Ashton, was the game’s symbolic moment. Ashton lay down, “nearly asleep”, felled by his own courage; Matfield just stood there, comically seeming to have barely noticed this pesky fly. The white-shirted casualties mounted up but Matfield rumbled on unstoppably, English ambition foundering against immovable Springbok will.
“Victor is a rugby genius but a great leader too,” said de Villiers. Not just the man to help you fight for your job; the man you best trust to help avert national humiliation.
Defeat to Scotland after one of the worst-ever years for the Springboks, capped latterly by a drugs scandal, had seen South Africa turn even on its most capped Bokke. “I’m on Twitter and when I went on it after the Scotland game, I saw the people was a bit upset,” said Matfield ruefully. “So I left the Twitter for the rest of the week!” Presumably left it for the ‘Splatter’.
What unfolded at Twickenham reminded him of the game here four years ago. Then, too, a dismal Boks’ season was ending with coach Jake White’s job on the line as they ground out a 25-14 win. Eleven months later, they lifted the World Cup. “Hopefully, this is the same omen as in 2006,” mused Matfield.
Why not? No team has ever successfully defended the World Cup but here was just an inkling of what a challenge the holders could lay down to imperious New Zealand hosts once, as Matfield pointed out, they can also call on their 14 missing players, including key, experienced operators like Schalk Burger, Heinrich Brussow, Bryan Habana, Jaque Fourie and the peerless Fourie du Preez.
Then there’s captain John Smit, still recovering from a neck operation. A declining force as hooker, accommodating him at prop may be the only way for him to win his place back, with the dynamic Bismarck du Plessis offering evidence again that, as Sean Fitzpatrick claims, he is the world’s best number two.
Smit, an iconic figure for the South African game, was here to offer some inspirational words to his team, but largely kept his distance. “It’s great to have our leader here,” said Matfield, but the indelible impression left again was that, in the 33-year-old colossus, they have the perfect ready-made replacement.
“Look how he put his body on the line. Victor will die for the cause if he believes in it,” said de Villiers. “And we will always do our best because our people back home deserve the best.” In Matfield, they have the best.