Victor Matfieldâ€™s popularity in Toulon makes his status in Pretoria look silly. And Bakkies Botha is not far behind.
To say Matfield is worshipped in the quiet French city would be an understatement. Matfield is a religion – one that has attracted thousands of disciples in the two months heâ€™s been in Toulon.
On Tuesday morning about 50 Toulon supporters gathered at the clubâ€™s training ground (around 5km from their home ground, Stade Mayol) to watch their deity practice alongside legends like George Gregan, Andrew Merhtens, Anton Oliver and head coach, Tana Umaga. By the afternoon session that number had swelled to close on to 200 (Iâ€™m told that the captainâ€™s run on Fridayâ€™s attracts around 1 000 spectators), all discussing one thing – the impact Matfield has made since his arrival.
Matfield took just two minutes into his debut to capture the hearts of the Toulon faithful, stealing a lineout in his 22 then proving to be a secure target for Oliver to aim at. Five minutes later he was dragged down 30cm from the tryline.
â€œIf he had scored from that try the stadium would have cracked in half because of the noise the fans would have made,â€ Patrick Fornet, president of the Toulon supporters club told keo.co.za.
â€œMatfield has been an absolute star for us. Here in Toulon, Matfield is God.â€
But even â€œGodâ€ isnâ€™t resting on his laurels. Matfieldâ€™s work ethic in the practice sessions was outstanding, and his conditioning is not in question. He consistently beat the loose forwards in 40m sprints and as always was at the head of the pack in repeat 80m brisk runs. His team-mates report that his gym work is brilliant.
Matfield looks at home in this environment, and has taken to his new-found fame with consummate ease. He gladly indulges those fans who wait for hours just to get close to him after practice, signing autographs and posing for photographs. Afterwards the fans always have the same question for him: â€œWhen is Bakkies coming?â€
A fortnight ago keo.co.za reported that Toulon had expressed an interest in signing Matfieldâ€™s Springbok blood brother. The Bulls said then that they were reluctant to release him but acknowledged that Toulon, backed by billionaire president Mourad Boudjellal, had the financial resources to buy out his contract (with four years to run, Toulon will have to pay around R10 million to lure Botha to the south of France).
The Bulls on Monday said they would refuse to release Botha, but a source close to Toulon has told keo.co.za that Botha has already signed a pre-contract. An intent to join if you like.
Matfield, who spoke to Botha on Tuesday about the rumours that heâ€™ll join, was reluctant to offer details of their conversation, saying: â€œ I never called Bakkies to convince him to come here. He will make the decision after careful consideration and itâ€™s not my place to pressure him into a decision.â€
Botha is sure to be offered a generous salary. Matfield is reported to be on multi-million rand deal and Botha is sure to be appraised similarly.
The talk about Botha is incessant. â€œHe is a warrior, the type of player we love here at Toulon,â€ Fornet said.
â€œWhen we see a player like him, itâ€™s like he was born to play here. When he comes, itâ€™ll be a big piece in the puzzle in place. The important thing then is that we have him and Matfield playing in the same team, not just one of them.â€
It is yet uncertain whether Matfield will return to the Bulls in mid-March. His contract has a escape clause that will allow him to leave should he choose to do so. At present he is uncertain about what to do, but admits to missing the hype in the build-up to the Super 14, especially since the Bulls take on an old foe this weekend.
â€œBulls versus Stormers are the kinds of games I live for,â€ he said. â€œTo miss it is killing me but I guess thatâ€™s the trade off you make when signing for a European club.
â€œThe Stormers will probably feel itâ€™s their best chance to beat us â€¦ [he pauses]â€¦ when I say â€œusâ€ it shows that Iâ€™m still a Bulls boy at heart. Anyway, theyâ€™ll feel they are in with a chance, especially since theyâ€™re at home. Look out for [former Bulls lock] Adriaan Fondse. Heâ€™s a class act and will have something to prove. But the Bulls have a really good squad and Iâ€™m sure theyâ€™ll do well.
â€œI’ve got Kudu Club, though, so Iâ€™ll get to watch it. I wouldnâ€™t miss it for anything in the world.â€
By Ryan Vrede in Toulon, France