Commanding respect

Victor Matfield’s approach to leadership is based on the teachings and philosophies of legendary American football coach Vince Lombardi.

The Hurricanes were trailing the Bulls 19-18 and pressing hard for the victory in their fifth-round Super 14 match at Loftus. It had been a dog show for the hosts, but they had rebounded from being 12-0 down, and were now resisting resolutely.

Bulls director of rugby Heyneke Meyer picks up the story.

‘We drove down into their half with three or four minutes left and had a couple of kickable penalties. The crowd screamed for Victor to take the shots at goal, but he turned them down in favour of the lineout.

‘People couldn’t understand it – I heard him being called some ugly names that wouldn’t be appropriate to repeat here – but Victor knew exactly what he was doing.’

Scrumhalf Fourie du Preez was at ground zero and gives a first-hand account of Matfield’s directives.

‘He told us we would win the lineout, drive and recycle the ball through as many phases as we could. Nobody was going to throw the ball wide. We’d hit up around the fringe. Then we’d win. As simple as that. Everyone trusted him. Nobody asked any questions.’

Meyer weighs in again.

‘There were also calls for a drop goal. That would have put us in the lead by four points. Victor knew the Hurricanes were capable of scoring from anywhere. Weaker, less experienced leaders would have taken the points, but he was so sure of himself, so sure of his team-mates, that he didn’t succumb to stupidity. We won because of Victor.’

Meyer and Du Preez can recount a number of similar examples to illustrate Matfield’s superb leadership ability and are the authorities on him, given that they’ve had insight into the manufacturing process that produced the exceptional leader he is today. Yes, Matfield is a manufactured leader. Debating whether he was born one is futile. He was aggressively and, at times, painfully, shaped from a self-important ‘s**t head’ (Bakkies Botha’s words) into an astute and highly respected leader of men.

His skill has been honed in equal measure through purposeful observation of leaders he respects, as it was through an active quest for self-improvement. With regard to the latter, literature by and on iconic American football coach Vince Lombardi has had a significant influence on Matfield’s leadership style.

Meyer is a disciple of Lombardi, and Matfield, his star pupil, has been equally taken with Lombardi’s teachings and philosophies.

‘Heyneke modelled a lot of his coaching principles on Lombardi’s and those principles have resonated strongly with me because they work,’ Matfield says. ‘The ethos of team above individualism is the most important thing in my view. I’ve been fortunate to lead an exceptional group of players who all know that we depend on each other for success. If I hadn’t learnt that, I don’t think I’d be nearly as successful as I have been.

‘What’s more is that he always encouraged his players to write down their strengths and weaknesses so that they were aware of them and had a physical reference point that they could go back to to measure their progress. I did that and it’s helped me work through a lot of my struggles as a leader.’

Lombardi believed one prevalent way to evaluate a leader is based on the six charismatic leadership traits: the ability to challenge the status quo, to create a compelling vision, to establish shared values, to enable others to act, to model the way, and to encourage the heart. Matfield embodies all those traits.

Furthermore, Lombardi, who transformed the Green Bay Packers from a mediocre mob into two-time Super Bowl winners and five-time NFL conference champions, believed the quality of a person’s life and the success they enjoy is in direct proportion to their commitment to excellence.

By this measure, it is no surprise that Matfield has won everything there is to win in the game.

It was nearly midnight in Auckland. Matfield had just finished a team meeting with the coaching staff and senior players where they’d finalised their approach to the weekend’s game against the Blues. He was about to review data on their lineout. The previous evening he had thoroughly dissected that facet of play over a period of two hours and six Nuttela crêpes. When he finished, it was close to 2am. To follow Matfield is not to take a blind step into oblivion. It is a lucidly drawn out path to success.

‘That doesn’t surprise me,’ Meyer says upon being told of Matfield’s late-night vigil. ‘Victor sees that as standard practice. He’s not trying to be a hero; he genuinely believes it is his responsibility to be the most prepared man on the team, so he does it willfully. He prepares for different variables, constructs plans B, C and D, and ensures that everyone knows those. Nothing surprises him on the field because he comes into matches better prepared than any opponent.’

Lombardi argues that leadership rests not only upon the capacity to lead, but also the willingness of the leader to use that capacity. ‘His leadership is then based on truth and character,’ he reasoned. ‘There must be truth in the purpose and willpower in the character.’

Lombardi would have been pleased to find in Matfield a leader of that ilk.

Flawed leaders demand respect. Matfield commands it through his religious devotion to analyses and the subsequent practical implementation of his findings, his consistently brilliant performances in pressure situations, his unfailing yielding to the merits of the collective in matches where his contribution has been the most decisive to the result, and his man-management on and off the field.

But it wasn’t always this way.

As a young professional, Matfield hated criticism and being corrected. He had a poisonous awareness of how good he was. Inferior players, through the manner they meekly ceded to him, reinforced that belief implicitly. Others were more explicit in their reverence, further fuelling his sense that he was a gift from the rugby gods.

A young Matfield had the personality of a piece of wet cardboard. That’s not a flawed assertion, his now blood brother Botha confirms it. ‘I wanted to moer him sometimes,’ the Bulls and Springbok lock said.

Meyer reveals that he had grown tired of the stroppy buck.

‘He was a bit, erm … loose. Really hard to manage,’ Meyer says diplomatically. ‘I always believed he’d be a great leader, even though some in the corridors of Loftus didn‘t think much of him because he was seen as too individualistic. But at that stage I’d had enough and told him to get his act in order or look for another union. Thankfully he did, and in the process he shattered the mould of what a typical Bulls captain should look like, and what demeanor they should have.’

‘I was a real stubborn bugger when I was in my early- to mid-20s. Hard-headed and unplayable at times,’ Matfield says in an honest self-appraisal of his formative years. ‘Even though I was a youngster in the teams I represented I would still want to have an influence on important decisions and I wanted things done my way. On the surface it seemed like I had everything under control, but inside I was unsure of myself. Now I see captains like that and I cringe because they are what I was and it’s ugly.’

Matfield’s insatiable desire for improvement forced him to confront his weaknesses and fears. It was an excruciatingly difficult process in which his self-image was challenged, shattered even. He had held steadfastly to the belief that he was a ready-made skipper who somehow had a special dispensation to bypass the vigorous process of refinement that the game’s great leaders all endured.

Having now been through that refining furnace, Matfield is well placed to offer some perspective.

‘Honesty, life experience and a balance of success and failure are the things that help you grow as a leader,’ he offers. ‘I stress life experience because something like being a husband and father has taught me much about leading men – patience, understanding, developing a sense of when to be hard and when to put an arm around a shoulder – you learn that all in a family context. I was wild as a youngster. I didn’t care about the discipline that made the great players what they were. But I don’t know if I’d be the man and player I am today if I didn’t go through that phase.’

Today Matfield is the most complete leader in South Africa and one of the finest in the world. He also provides Springbok captain John Smit with a deputy of the highest order.

‘Victor’s a natural leader,’ Smit said in his autobiography. ‘I’ve grown to rely   significantly on his leadership ability. He is effectively another captain of the team.’

He is also the most successful franchise captain in history. When their achievements are recounted in future, the Bulls’ champion class of 2007, 2009 and possibly 2010 will be referred to as ‘The Matfield side’. It would be a grossly unfair attribution given the calibre of players he leads and their contribution to blinging out the Loftus trophy room. But Matfield has become synonymous with success.

I recently overheard a conversation between a boy, no older than eight, and his mother in a bookstore. The kid was studying a magazine with a cover image of SuperSport United celebrating their Premiership title success. ‘Mom, where’s Victor Matfield?’ the boy asked. Point made.

Meyer chuckles when the story is retold.

‘The measure of the great captains is that they are readily associated with success,’ he says. ‘If I close my eyes I can summon the image of Francois Pienaar lifting the World Cup in 1995, John Eales in 1999, Martin Johnson in 2003, Smit in 2007. Those images are as vivid as the ones of Victor kissing the Super 14 trophy in 2007 and him laying next to it in 2009.’

That’s not to say Matfield hasn’t failed as a leader. He has. His diabolical record in his early captaincy career bears testament to that. However, while some leaders have failed and been failures, you sense that Matfield’s failure simply made him more formidable.

‘He’d come to me after we’d lost, sometimes an hour after the match, and want to analyse what went wrong,’ Meyer recalls. ‘He hated losing, still does, and I’m sure when he gets home after the matches he watches them three, four times over. He needs to know where we went wrong. Not wants, needs. But part of what separates Victor from other captains is that he shows the same urgency when we win. Most other captains would probably be happy to just celebrate the win. Victor wants to know why we won.’

Another of Matfield’s characteristics is that he never allows a blurring of the lines between player and captain. It is a Lombardi principle: ‘The leader can never close the gap between himself and the group,’ he said. ‘If he does, he is no longer what he must be. He must walk a tightrope between the consent he must win and the control he must exert.’

Understand that Matfield is not alienated from his team and that he is acutely aware that he is neither omniscient nor omnipresent. He celebrates victories with legendary gusto alongside team-mates and willingly shares the leadership load with Du Preez, and, to a lesser extent, Bakkies Botha, Gary Botha and Wynand Olivier. However, when it’s go-time, there is no doubt that he is in charge. But in just over a year that will all change.

It’s inconceivable to imagine the Bulls without Matfield, but it’s a reality that needs to be confronted, as he will retire after the 2011 season. Certainly his prodigious talent and technical brilliance will be missed, but the leadership void he leaves is humungous. His impact and influence has been seismic and it will be some time before one of the Bulls’ troop of rookies rock the foundations of Loftus in the manner he has.

Matfield hasn’t been struck by the enormity of his decision yet. He’s a here-and-now type, but he predicts that he’ll miss the brotherhood, routine and structured lifestyle terribly. It is, after all, all he’s known for a decade. But coaching, an avenue Matfield has purposed to venture down, will allow an easier transition.

There have been reports of him being approached by the Brumbies and Waratahs, and the Bulls have already felt him out about joining their coaching staff. Matfield, however, has no interest in a consultancy or assistant coaching role and it looks likely that he will take the reigns at Boland, a union he has equity in.

‘I want to earn my stripes as a coach, just like I did as a player by spending two years at Griquas, and Boland will allow me to do that out of the limelight. I don’t want an easy ride. It’s important to me that I work my way up through the ranks,’ Matfield says. ‘Nothing is decided yet, but the prospect of coaching Boland is appealing. I’ll be able to build from the ground up and in so doing ingrain my philosophies and put in place structures for sustained success.’

Predicting whether Matfield will have a Lombardi-like impact wherever he opts to coach is impossible. He certainly has the potential to if given the time and resources. But that issue is for another time.

Now it’s time to celebrate an exceptional leader. A national treasure.

By Ryan Vrede

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