Big Vic: I miss SA

Victor Matfield was feeling a bit homesick when SA Rugby magazine’s Ryan Vrede visited him in Toulon.

‘You know the A80 highway, right?’ Sure. ‘Take the A80 from the training ground in the direction of Marseilles. You’ll see the Carquieranne signboards after about 10km and you want to veer off right then. Follow the road through three roundabouts before hitting a left. The road winds through a mountain and you’ll get to Avenue De Mist. I’m number 42. There’s a big green gate in the front. You can’t miss it.’

It seemed simple enough for SA Rugby magazine to find Victor Matfield’s Toulon home. Two and a half days in the southern France city was enough to inspire confidence that it would be a simple mission – even though by this stage I was convinced the GPS system was in need of exorcism.

It turned out to be mission impossible.

Twenty minutes pass and we have already called Matfield four times to ask for directions. A half hour later we’re in the meandering pass through the mountain that takes you up to Matfield’s home. Our Renault Clio rental is not keen on the steep incline, accelerating uphill with the speed, power and enthusiasm of a 40-year-old Os du Randt.

The road is so narrow that only one car can pass at a time, with the other forced into the dense bush that lines the roadside. Armed with the knowledge that the French place absolutely no material value on their vehicles, we end up in that bush more times than we care to remember. The arduous journey does, however, seem worthwhile when we arrive at Matfield’s pad.

Three storeys tall, the Provençal-style home overlooks the Mediterranean, the harbour and Carquieranne town centre. It’s like a scene from one of those movies your girlfriend insists you watch, and you secretly enjoy, despite your manly grunts to the contrary. George Gregan stays in a nearby suburb he’s dubbed ‘California’, while Andrew Mehrtens and Tana Umaga stay within 5km of Matfield. Monaco and St Tropez are a short drive away, and the island of Corsica can be seen from Matfield’s balcony. ‘I had the choice of staying there,’ he points out, ‘but travelling to and from practice would have been an absolute nightmare.’

During the 2007 World Cup, Matfield made two trips to Toulon to look at houses the club had picked out for him. Perhaps ‘houses’ is an inaccurate term (mansions would be more apt) because no expense was spared in ensuring that he would be comfortable in his new surroundings. Money wasn’t an issue when it came to his home. The club took care of it in the same way it set him up with everything else he needed or wanted. He is negotiating the trip between Toulon’s training ground and home in a club-sponsored Golf GTI, until his Toureg, a high-class SUV, arrives. Toulon is in the process of fully furnishing his home, and someone at the club’s head office would probably make the 30km trip from the city centre to mow his lawn or stir his coffee if he asked.

To say Matfield is worshipped in Toulon would be an understatement. Rugby is a religion in the city. And Matfield is God.

It’s a morning practice and about 100 middle-aged chain-smoking Frenchmen have turned up to watch their deity train alongside legendary team-mates Gregan, Merhtens, Anton Oliver and head coach Umaga.

By the afternoon session that number had swelled to 300 (I’m told that the captain’s run on Fridays attracts about 2 000 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. His first contribution was a sinew-ripping tackle, before he stole two line-outs. Then he proved to be a secure target for Oliver to aim at on their own throw. Five minutes later he was dragged down 10m from the tryline.

‘If he had scored from that try the stadium would have cracked in half because of the noise the fans would have made,’ Patrick Fornet, president of the Toulon supporters club, says. ‘Matfield has been an absolute star for us.

Here in Toulon, Matfield is God.’

‘God’ takes 20 minutes to make the 80m walk from the car park to the change room before practice. Signing autographs, posing for pictures and talking rugby with his disciples has become part and parcel of daily life. So much so that ‘God’ took an hour to get to the post-match function after an away game to Mont-De-Marsan – and Toulon lost that one.

But even ‘God’ isn’t resting on his laurels. Matfield’s work ethic at practice is outstanding, and his conditioning is certainly not in question. He consistently beats loose forwards in 20m sprints and was at the head of the pack in repeat 80m brisk runs. His team-mates report that his gym work is unmatched and he has voluntarily taken highly rated France U20 lock Yoann Maestri under his wing.

‘Honestly, there were two primary factors for me coming here – the money and the appeal of being able to spend more time with my family,’ Matfield explains.

‘Two or three seasons here would set me up for life financially, and being able to see my wife Monja and daughter Jaime every day is something I’m loving. But there’s a perception that I’ve got an easy ride here, that I just take it slow and don’t really put in the effort. That’s rubbish. I work as hard and put in as much effort as I have at any stage of my career. I realise that with my price tag comes a responsibility to perform at a consistently exceptional level. I feel that pressure every day. I’m very aware that the expectations are extremely high.’

Monja is lounging on an oversized couch reading a magazine in the living room. It’s a glorious winter day in Toulon and sunlight is flooding the room, illuminating the space to good effect. It clearly lacks a woman’s touch, something she insists will change in the coming weeks. She arrived from Pretoria the day before we visited, having had to take care of the paperwork that sealed the sale of their luxury home and oversaw the renovations to another equally extravagant home on the outskirts of the city.

‘Monja’s been really great while I’ve been here,’ Matfield says, staring endearingly at his wife. ‘I’d be useless without her. I really missed her and Jaime while they were still back in South Africa, but the boys from the club took good care of me while I was alone.’

Wednesday night poker was one such pastime for Matfield. Toulon’s Pacific Island contingent are the organisers-in-chief, with former Sharks flanker Nico Breedt acting as Matfield’s wingman. ‘I’ve finished second twice and made about 60 euros off the boys. The first prize is usually about 100 euros although it has gone up to 300 euros when guys have got serious and bought back into the game.

‘I also had the South African guys [Breedt, Francois van Schouwenburg, Wessel Roux, Lawrence Sephaka and Chris Rossouw] over to my place for a braai. Man, it was freezing that night, but we made damn sure the wood caught fire so that we could at least just get a taste of some braaivleis. I was really missing home at that stage.’

Matfield still misses home terribly. It’s the week leading up to the opening round of the Super 14. His beloved Bulls are playing the Stormers and every day is a battle to try to banish thoughts about what it would have been like to be part of the build-up to that match, the sort of analysis he would have done on the Stormers’ line-out, the Bulls’ approach …

‘I think I made the move to France two years too early,’ Matfield reveals. ‘The decision to come here was based on the fact that I believed I had two years of international rugby left in me. In my mind, the Lions tour in 2009 was going to be my final series, so I decided that it would be good to finish by experiencing a different rugby culture and be paid handsomely for it in the process. Then, after the World Cup, I felt great. At this stage I want to play Test rugby for another four years, with the World Cup in New Zealand the obvious target. If I want to realise that goal, I need to be playing my rugby in South Africa.

‘You’d think that I grew tired of the pressure back home, but I really miss it for some strange reason. To test yourself against the world’s best players weekly is a privilege, and something that I miss terribly. Toulon is a great club and I‘m still dead set on playing my part in getting us into the Top 14. They’ve been very good to me, and for that I’ll be eternally grateful. But the Bulls have a special place in my heart. I miss what we’ve built up over the last eight years. The majority of that squad went through hell in the early 2000s in the Super 12. We came through that together and won the competition last year. So there’s a strong bond between the guys.’

Matfield’s tone and body language when discussing this subject tells the story of a man on the verge of returning to his first love. He has an escape clause in his contract that stipulates he is free to leave Toulon after six months. The question was begging to be asked.

‘If I can get stuff sorted out with Toulon and back in South Africa, I’ll probably be coming home,’ he says. ‘Guys coming over here have to be clear in their motivation. If they’re coming here for the retirement package and more time with their families, there really isn’t a better place than France, Toulon in particular. But if they still have ambitions to achieve something in South Africa, those “what if” questions will always be there. Those questions have haunted me a lot since I‘ve been here.’

But you’ve achieved everything you could in South Africa, I offer.

‘You’d think so, but the challenge is to surpass the standards we’ve set, whether it be with the Boks or Bulls. I know what it’s like to be gunning for the Crusaders, who were the top dogs in the Super 14. Now I want to experience being in their position, where everyone is gunning for you. To win the tournament like that would be a totally different experience. I want to win the Tri-Nations by winning four games, for example, and not sneaking through on bonus points. Do you know, I’ve never won a Test match in New Zealand? Those are unfulfilled goals.’

Matfield’s in the groove now. He’s relaxed and is speaking openly about issues that bother him. None has done so more than the saga of his supposed support of Heyneke Meyer for the Bok coaching job. Matfield’s voice is laced with irritation when he recounts the events of late November and early December 2007.
‘People were saying that I was backing Heyneke, but that’s not entirely true. I’d already signed for Toulon at that stage, but I had an escape clause in my contract that said if he became the Bok coach I would be able to play the Super 14 in South Africa.

‘Before I signed, he had approached me and asked me to stay if he got the job. Heyneke has done a lot for me, so I agreed. Now he’s not the Bok coach but I still feel I want to go back home and play for the Boks and the Bulls.

‘I have no issue with Peter de Villiers. Some sections of the media have suggested that my relationship with Peter will be strained because I was seen to have backed his main competitor. That’s rubbish. If he, or any of the other guys who were on the short list, had asked me early enough and provided good reasons for me to stay in SA, I would have considered it in the same way I considered Heyneke’s request.’

The other issue that eats at Matfield is the prevailing perception that he was the main instigator of the plot to lure Bulls and Bok team-mate Bakkies Botha to Toulon.

‘I had nothing to do with Bakkies’s dealings with Toulon,’ Matfield asserts. ‘He called me to ask me what the club was like to play for and how difficult it has been to adjust to the culture, and I gave him my opinions. Not at any stage did I say, “Bakkies, you have to come to Toulon”. That would be very irresponsible of me because I’m not even sure if I’m going to be staying here. The people of Toulon really want him to come, but that decision is between him and the Bulls. I have and want nothing to do with that.’

For the next four months Matfield has his sights set on success with Toulon. He’s already the club’s ten-pin bowling champion and has the purple trophy on his dining room mantelpiece to prove it. Now a slightly higher and more illustrious honour beckons: winning the French Pro Division 2, thereby securing promotion to the Top 14.

To achieve that will take a collective effort from some of the most gifted individuals in the game’s history. But history has warned that outrageously gifted individuals seldom ensure success. Spanish football giants Real Madrid experienced this in the latter stages of their Galácticos era in mid-2000 whereas English football’s big spenders Chelsea are struggling to keep pace with the league’s leaders.

‘I don’t think a collection of stars make a good team,’ says Matfield. ‘If you look at the greatest teams in the world, you’ll see that they have a good blend of exceptional players and honest grafters. I can only be as good as the guys next to me, so to expect Toulon to wipe the floor with everyone just because we have Gregan, Oliver, Mehrtens and Matfield is unrealistic. Gregan is one man with limited influence on a match, so is Oliver and Mehrtens. Matfield is not God.’

Sorry Vic, but that’s not what we heard.

By Ryan Vrede

This article first appeared in the April issue of SA Rugby magazine. The May issue is on sale now.