Going nowhere slowly

RYAN VREDE thinks it is a travesty that the Springbok selectors have completely ignored scientific guidelines on player conditioning when picking Victor Matfield.

I cringed when Matfield was announced as the tour captain. My distress wasn’t a reflection of my estimation of his capacity to lead, but rather born from a deep concern about his physical condition and, more pertinently, his future value to the Springboks.

Matfield has played more rugby than any player in South Africa. He was rested for one Super Rugby fixture, and inexplicably played the mid-year Tests against Italy. During the Tri-Nations he was a shadow of the dominant player he had been in 2009. I can’t recall seeing him delivering as laboured a performance as what he did in the Currie Cup semi-final. Despite the four-week conditioning camp he had just come off, he looked a spent force.

Now he will be tasked with lifting his performance for what the Springbok coaching staff has deemed a crucial Grand Slam tour. It is against the background of a diabolical season that a tour that was initially meant to offer exhausted players a much-needed rest, now becomes one geared towards ensuring that Peter de Villiers and his assistants make it to the World Cup in 2011.

Matfield is the prized sacrificial lamb that De Villiers hopes will contribute significantly towards appeasing his rugby gods (read: South African Rugby Union bosses).

Certainly there are others who need a break – Schalk Burger, MornĂ© Steyn and Bryan Habana chief among those – while Ricky Januarie would benefit from a conditioning programme tailored for him. But none of that quartet is in the very twilight of their careers, and the latter trio are backline players who take significantly less contact that the 33-year-old lock does.

I can’t see Matfield’s conditioning improving significantly enough for him to reach the World Cup in optimum condition. The 2011 Super Rugby season, an extended one, is his last for the Bulls. He will insist on playing every game and the Bulls’ coaching and conditioning staff will offer little or no resistance, despite their assurances to Springbok conditioning coach Neels Liebel that the national interest will be given greater priority than it has in years past.

Prior to the first home Tri-Nations Test at Soccer City against the All Blacks, Liebel was given the implicit directive to silence the media’s criticism of patently fatigued players (Matfield among those) by offering a plethora of elaborate statistics and data collected from an expensively acquired GPS monitoring system. Liebel said elite rugby players where capable of playing between 1 400 and 1 600 minutes before their performance dropped markedly. Matfield has far exceeded that total.

Two weeks later in Pretoria De Villiers told the media: ‘…something is wrong with Victor’, and after the Test at Loftus he said that Matfield (and John Smit): ‘…didn’t know what it was like to feel good anymore’, in response to questions about their conditioning. He would then play both men against Australia a week later. Now Matfield will again be strapped on to De Villiers’ chariot and asked to haul him into a battle on three legs.

What then is the point of conditioning measurements when they are wilfully ignored? De Villiers, along with the rugby bosses who retained him after a post Tri-Nations review then pressured him into selecting senior players running on empty, will all need to be held to account when fatigue adversely affects key senior players’ (Matfield one of the most important) attempts to mount a successful title defence.

Perhaps if De Villiers and Liebel bothered to check the reading on Matfield’s GPS they would have seen the warning that read: Going nowhere slowly.

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