The world’s best lock has been playing flank. They do things a little differently at Toulon Rugby Club.
It would be unheard of in South Africa for Matfield trade shirt No. 5 for No. 7. He has no equal when it comes to lock play. His analyses of, and ability to read and torment opposition jumpers is legendary, while is skill and athleticism in loose play is unmatched.
There was, however, method to head coach Tana Umaga’s madness. Matfield, speaking to keo.co.za from his home in the picturesque suburb of Carquieranne, picks up the story of his three matches in unfamiliar territory.
“The whole purpose behind the switch was to enable me to get my hands on the ball more,” Matfield explains. “The coaching staff wanted me to be more involved in the loose, and they felt I had the necessary skills to succeed as a flanker.
“The adjustment was a fairly easy one to make. There’s not many differences other than packing down at a different place in the scrum. I still played the same role I always have in the lineouts – making the calls and being the primary jumper.
“I enjoyed the couple of matches I played there, but I think they realised I was best utilised at lock, so I’m back there for this weekend’s match [Matfield will be partnered by former Bulls team-mate Francois van Schouwenburg].”
Toulon currently top the log in Pro Division 2, four points clear of Stade Montois and a further 10 points clear of the ambitious Paris-based Racing Metro [two teams are promoted to the Top 14]. They have, however, dropped points on the road, putting them under pressure going into the closing stages of the season.
“It’s getting tight now but we’ve got a good, experienced side, so I’m confident we will cope with the pressure,” he said. “The key is to get a couple of away wins [they've lost their last three away games] because that’s been our weakness this season.”
Asked what he made of the Bulls’ indifferent form this season, Matfield sympathized with his former franchise but was in no doubt that their form graph would show an upward curve in the coming weeks.
“The key is to focus on the week ahead and not be overly fixated on setting goals for the [Australasian] tour,” he said. “You get into trouble the moment you start looking ahead and lose focus on the task at hand.
“I’m sure they’ll bounce back. They’ve played some good rugby this season – people lose sight of that. They dominated for 30 minutes against an excellent Crusaders side, and should have been 15 points up with 10 minutes to go against the Sharks. I think inexperience cost them in those matches, with guys like Bakkies Botha, Bryan Habana and Akona Ndungane missing.
“But they’re back now which is a huge boost. They’ve been playing some good rugby in my opinion. They key is getting some momentum on tour, which would allow them to make a big charge in the latter part of the campaign.”
By Ryan Vrede