Victor Matfield believes the British & Irish Lions will miss Jonny Wilkinson but will still be formidable opponents.
Wilkinson injured his knee in October 2008 playing for Newcastle and has been sidelined since. He was initially expected to be fit by late March, but recently announced that his rehabilitation was progressing slower than expected, effectively ruling him out of consideration for Lions selection.
The loss is a significant one for coach Ian McGeechan, who, despite publicly voicing his admiration for Wilkinson, has had to overlook the Englishman. Matfield to is a keen admirer of Wilkinson and lamented his exclusion, saying he adds tremendous value to any team with his wide range of skills. Despite this, Matfield stressed that they had two competent pivots in Stephen Jones and Ronan O’Gara, who each had unique skills that needed to be nullified.
‘Losing a player of Wilkinson’s calibre is massive for any side. He is a quality player and I’m slightly surprised they didn’t give him an opportunity to prove his fitness,’ Matfield told keo.co.za.
‘He brings a lot to England when he plays because he is so versatile in terms of playing a tactical or more expansive game. That said, the two flyhalves they’ve chosen are quality in their own right and their experience will be important in big Test matches.
‘Overall there were no other major surprises,’ he added. ‘Everyone I expected to be there was included. They’ve selected mainly Welsh and Irish players, which means McGeechan stayed true to his promise to pick on form and not reputation, which is probably what counted against Wilkinson.’
The Springboks are widely expected to negotiate the Lions’ challenge fairly easily, but Matfield cautioned against this line of thinking.
‘I won’t buy into that. They’ve picked some very good players and if they can manage to gel quickly they’ll be a very difficult team to beat,’ he said. ‘That’s the key for them, gelling quickly. It’ll be [captain] Paul O’Connell’s biggest challenge.
‘But we’re [the Springboks] blessed with a special squad of players at the moment and we’re confident that if we play to our potential we can beat any side in the world.’
There have been concerns raised that Lions assistant coach Warren Gatland’s [Wales head coach] criticism of Ireland’s players during the Six Nations would have an adverse effect on squad synergy. Matfield, however, stressed that it would be viewed as gamesmanship and should be quickly forgotten.
‘In the lead up to Bulls/Sharks or Bulls/Stormers games in the Super 14 there is plenty said in the media that could be considered critical. But when we get together as the Springboks those things are forgotten,’ he said.
‘We know it’s part of getting a mental edge on your opponent. It’s a bit of gamesmanship, that’s what that is. It shouldn’t be an issue for them. They’re professionals who understand the importance of getting the mental edge.’
By Ryan Vrede