Facing the All Blacks will always be the highlight of any Springbok’s career, says Victor Matfield.
All the South Africans have repeatedly described the honour of playing against the British & Irish Lions due to the event only coming once every 12 years. The Boks’ build-up to their opening Tri-Nations fixture has been comparatively greeted with minimal fanfare in Bloemfontein, but the Bok vice-captain says this will always be the true rugby Test.
There is an argument the two nations with enviable histories and traditions play each other too often, which has reduced the aura of Springbok/All Blacks encounters. However, Matfield says the feeling of facing the haka – whether it be the ‘Ka Mate’ or ‘Kapa o Pango’ version - is an occasion on it’s own.
‘Playing the All Blacks will always be the ultimate Test for any Springbok. Sitting here now just thinking about facing the haka already gives me goosebumps,’ Matfield said with a grin. ‘That was a big Lions series, as it doesn’t come around often. But we will have to lift our level of play over the next couple of months because I still believe this is the toughest competition in the world.’
Matfield said he would love to revert back to traditional touring of countries – similar to the Lions series - but struggled to find a period in the international calendar when this could be accommodated. He said dominating the All Blacks would be key to a first Tri-Nations title in five years.
‘These Tests can’t be viewed as a series, although it would be nice to go 2-1 up against the All Blacks this year. Our main focus is to win the tournament, and if we beat them twice we’ll have a good chance of that,’ he said.
On the two occasions the Boks have won the Tri-Nations, they traveled first. Matfield played down suggestions the Boks have the ideal itinerary this year.
‘There’s no such thing as a favourable draw, everyone plays three at home and three away. We need to start well and winning home games is very important. But two weeks in a row against New Zealand is as tough as you can get.
‘The altitude may make it a little rough for the All Blacks, but they’ve got some good wins on the highveld in the last couple of years. We need to put that right. I’ve played for the Boks for eight seasons and won just one Tri-Nations, so it’s tough to say who are the favourites as the All Blacks have just beaten Australia,’ he said.
Matfield viewed his role in the lineouts as crucial in nullifying the visitors’ game-plan.
‘It’s an area we see as a strength of ours and we want to attack them’ said Matfield. ‘But [Isaac] Ross and [Brad] Thorn did well against Bakkies Botha and I in the Super 14.
‘If we can force them into lineouts it will be advantageous for us. Against the Aussies, they didn’t kick the ball out. There will be different conditions up here, it’ll be nice and dry for them, so I’m sure they will try keep the ball in hand. They have great runners at the back who love to play from broken field. They don’t need many phases to break you down.’
By Grant Ball, in Bloemfontein