He’s spent the last two years working variously as a Supersport commentator and as a coach, now after an impressive comeback season with the Bulls, Victor Matfield goes back to the role that he probably most enjoys – that of Springbok captain – By Gavin Rich
Bok coach Heyneke Meyer made the announcement everyone was anticipating at the team hotel on the Cape Town foreshore on Tuesday, with Matfield being installed as the interim captain for the June series of matches against a World XV, Wales twice and Scotland. Regular skipper Jean de Villiers, who is spending much time with the team even though he is on crutches, will return for the Castle Lager Rugby Championship in August.
The delay in the announcement of the interim leader, with Meyer saying on Sunday that he still hadn’t fully made up his mind, did give rise to speculation that an appointment might be made from left field, but in the end Meyer said he felt that Matfield was the obvious choice.
“He has been the captain of a lot of the guys in this squad before, and he is highly respected by both the players in our squad and by opposition players, which is important,” said Meyer.
“Victor fits into our culture. He has a gentlemanly manner about him, although I don’t want him to be a clone of Jean, I want him to be his own man. I want him to be the first Victor. The point is that he has been there before and there won’t be much disruption by having him leading the team.
“Anyway, we have now progressed to the point where we have lots of leaders in the team. It is different from a few years ago when the side was young. I have appointed Bismarck du Plessis and Fourie du Preez as the two vice-captains and I know they will back up Victor and help him lead the team.”
Meyer said he would have chosen Du Plessis as his captain if the appointment was on a more long-term basis but that Matfield was the perfect fit for the interim role.
“Being captain is a huge honour but also carries with it much responsibility. I watched Victor captain a young Bulls team in Super Rugby and, with respect to the other guys who have done the job, he brought out something special in that side and did much better than the other captains did,” said Meyer.
“I wouldn’t choose a captain that wasn’t definitely worth a place in the starting team. Last year our regular captain, Jean, was in excellent form and won the SA Rugby Player of the Year Award. Victor has made a strong comeback to his playing career and I am pretty sure he will prove that he is still one of the top No 5 locks in the world.”
Matfield said that when he initially heard that he might be made captain, and had been approached by Meyer to ask if he was available, he had thought it was great, but then a bit of nervousness had taken over.
“Initially I thought it was a good idea but I must admit that afterwards I thought to myself ‘Sjoe, have I made the right decision?’ I realise there will be criticism of the appointment as I am 37,” said Matfield.
“I do enjoy being captain, although really it is just about being the guy who leads the team out of the tunnel. You do rely a lot on the senior players around you. I have guys like Fourie (du Preez), Bismarck and Duane Vermeulen to help me, and it is also great to have Schalk (Burger) back as well. There is a lot of experience there.”
Matfield confirmed that the seeds for his comeback had been sown just a few months after he retired following the defeat to Australia in the quarterfinal of the 2011 World Cup.
“When Heyneke took over as the coach and he phoned me to ask me about a possible comeback I was very tempted,” he said.
“The thing is that myself and Heyneke have worked closely together. We understand each other, and Heyneke was really the guy who brought me through and developed my career. So I thought that it would be great to play for the Boks under Heyneke.
“After the disappointment of losing at the last World Cup and failing to make the semifinals when we were hoping to win the competition, there was also a big motivation for me to come back and experience another World Cup success. If I didn’t think I could play in the World Cup and be part of a winning team there, I would not be playing again. I want to bring the Webb Ellis trophy back to South Africa.”
Most of all the evergreen lock is looking forward to being part of what he described as “the best Bok team I have seen in a long time”.
Matfield said he had been highly impressed with the way that the Boks had developed in the two years that Meyer had been in charge and was eager to continue the growth now that he is playing again.
“Last year we were scoring four tries regularly in test matches and it has been a long time since that has happened with the Boks and I would like to see us continue with that type of rugby,” he said.
Commenting on the seamless way he had come back into rugby and been able to perform, Matfield pointed to his work ethic, something that is often lacking in older players once Father Time starts catching up with them but most emphatically isn’t lacking from the athletic 37-year-old.
“Being older makes you work harder. You have to work as hard as you need to work to stay at the top of your game,” said the man who has led the Boks 17 times and has 110 caps to his credit. The last time he led the Boks was against Samoa in the final pool game of the 2011 World Cup.