Victor Matfield believes a number of elite Springboks could follow his lead and return to play in South Africa in the near future.
Matfield, who joined French second division club Toulon in December 2007, decided to take advantage of a release clause in his contract that came into effect after six months, and rejoin the Bulls. Matfield was one of six World Cup Springboks to take up lucrative European offers after the showpiece event in France in 2007.
Matfield, speaking to keo.co.za from Toulon, said his decision to return to South Africa was heavily influenced by his view that his chances of playing for the Springboks would improve significantly if he was “in the system”. He added that in his discussions with other Springboks it had become clear that many now hold similar views.
“I spoke to Percy [Montgomery] recently and he said he was very keen to come back to South Africa at some stage in the near future. He definitely still wants to play for the Boks,” Matfield said, citing just one such example.
“There are a couple of other guys from the World Cup squad who are in the same situation because they feel it would best serve their chances of playing for the Boks. But that’s a decision they’ll make when the time is right for them. I realised shortly after I got here that I may have made the move a couple of years too early. I still had ambitions with the Bulls and the Springboks and thankfully I’ve got another chance to have a crack at achieving those now.
“I knew that the Bok selectors would be able to follow my progress on television if we gained promotion to the Top 14 [Toulon are currently three points clear at the top of the table with five matches remaining in their season] but it made sense for me to be playing within the South African structures where I could test myself against the best players and in what in my opinion is the best tournament in the world [the Super 14]. I also want to play a mentorship role to youngsters coming through at the Bulls. Other Boks realise the value in that and there are those who are contemplating their futures.”
Matfield said the Springboks’ form in 2008 will be a massive influence on whether elite Europe-based Springboks returned to South Africa. “Everyone wants to be part of a winning team and a winning culture, so if the Boks are going well I think it will be difficult for the guys who were part of that [World Cup] squad but miss out [in 2008] to just be content and stay in Europe.”
Matfield, who also had big money offers from Top 14 clubs Toulouse and Montpellier, as well as Premiership-bound Northampton, revealed that his former Bulls coach, Heyneke Meyer, had been influential in his decision to return to South Africa.
When Meyer applied for the job of Springbok coach he asked Matfield to play in South Africa if he got the job, arguing that it was critical that the country retained it’s best players – of which he said Matfield was the finest. Matfield agreed to the request, but when the South African Rugby Union pushed the election date back to January 9, Matfield could no longer honour his promise as he was contractually obligated to be in Toulon by the start of that month.
“Heyneke stills holds the view that the country’s best players should be playing in South Africa despite not having got the [Springbok] job,” Matfield said. “That played a big part in my decision because I respect him and his views a lot. He also spoke about family values, both with my immediate family and the Bulls family, and how it was important to look after their interests as well as mine. Toulouse was a very appealing option to me because of the style of rugby that they play and the fact that they would offer me the opportunity to play in the Heineken Cup, so I was really considering them seriously.
“But at the end of the day what Heyneke said made sense to me, and that made a difficult decision a little easier.”
The 30-year-old said he met with millionaire Toulon president Mourad Boudjellal last week to discuss his departure. Boudjellal was disappointed to lose him but said he supported whatever decision he made. Matfield said Boudjellal had not sought to keep him in Toulon with an improved contract offer, and also rejected reports that their relationship had been strained during his time at the club.
“I’ll leave on good terms. Those reports are completely false,” he said. “I even spoke to him at length about some of my ideas about how we could improve certain facets of the club and the team. This is a special team with special supporters and if they are promoted to the Top 14 a couple of elite players will join, which will be superb for the club and the city. I’ll do my best to get us there because I want to repay their loyalty in some way.”
The Bulls tied Matfield down to a three-year deal which, he said, will see him end his playing career in Pretoria. Asked why he had eliminated his chances of playing oversees again Matfield explained that he wanted security in his contract and also spoke of his desire to stay involved at the franchise in a coaching capacity once his contract expires.
Matfield was adamant that the union have the structures and calibre of players to be a force in Super Rugby and on the domestic scene in future.
“The fact that they are struggling was a big part of the reason why I wanted to go back,” he said in response to question of why he would return to a union who are besieged by a number of on and off field troubles. “I think I can play a part in turning that situation around.”
By Ryan Vrede