Matfield the Master

MARK KEOHANE, in his Business Day newspaper rugby column, lauds Victor Matfield’s mastery of Andries Bekker and the Stormers.

The occasion demanded Andries Bekker to peel away just a bit of the Victor Matfield aura, but as with the Super Rugby final of 2010 it was the veteran Matfield who simply added to his aura. He remains the best lineout specialist and strategist South Africa has produced and his performance in the 19-16 win against the Stormers at Newlands provides the comfort that Matfield still has the strength of mind and physical capacity to be influential and dominant at this year’s Rugby World Cup.

There were whispers on the eve of the match that Bekker was injured and would not play. The Stormers management denied this but if there was no injury to Bekker before the game then there definitely was to him afterwards – and I am talking about those psychological scars that are a lot more lasting than any physical beating.

Bekker’s performance was always going to be critical to a Stormers victory, but the player who has stood tallest all season had to be content with an evening in the shadow of the master Matfield. It was another reminder that Bekker, for all the potential to be better than Matfield, has not yet delivered in those big moments. Until he does he hasn’t earned the right to be spoken of internationally in the same breath.

The wind conditions at Newlands were testing but the reason the Stormers lost three of their first six lineout balls had more to do with the presence of Matfield than the weather.

The Bulls deserved the win because they played the better finals type rugby and made fewer mistakes. The Stormers fumbled their way through the first 70 minutes and some of the basic handling errors were embarrassing for players at this level.

The defence on both sides was effective and the Stormers were marginally more creative in attack, but the Stormers could not replicate the aggression they showed against the Sharks a month ago.

The match had the traditional South African-derby brutality but as a spectacle it failed to deliver to a capacity Newlands crowd, whose doubts about the Stormers this morning will be justified.

There will be similar questions around the Bulls ability to win away from home in a one-off situation should they be required to travel to Australia or New Zealand for a match against the Reds or Crusaders.

The attacking efficiency from both sides at Newlands was substandard. The Bulls scored from a Stormers lineout mistake and the Stormers scored with two minutes to go and could have had a match-winner with the last movement of the game had Bryan Habana shown the express pace of four years ago to beat the cover defence.

Creatively this match offered nothing for the first 75 minutes as South Africa’s two best teams hammered away at each other. It was all too predictable and from a Cape perspective so too was the result because once again the Stormers lost a match they were favourites to win and once again every doubt resurfaced about the championship capabilities of the Cape-based side, who have lost to the Reds, Crusaders and Bulls at Newlands this season.

Those excusing the Stormers defeat will seek comfort in the Stormers going so close despite having to select their fourth-choice flyhalf because of injuries.

But this was a Bulls team missing Bakkies Botha and Fourie du Preez. Come on, there can be no excuse for the Capetonians.

The Stormers, in securing the bonus point, claimed the South African Conference but they can’t claim the bragging rights of being a cut above the rest of the South African teams and the visit to Bloemfontein has the potential for more questions than answers.

The Sharks and Bulls will determine their own play-off destiny when they front each other in this Saturday’s final league match and everything now favours a home team win and Sharks play-off elimination.

The Sharks decline over the last six weeks has been gradual and a more composed opponent would have humiliated them in Johannesburg. The Lions led 30-9 after 55 minutes, lost Butch James to the sin-bin in the last quarter and were defending their line at 30-all.

I don’t know which would have been worse for Lions coach John Mitchell … to get stuffed or to stuff it up like this?

James, up until his yellow card, had played splendidly at flyhalf and like with Matfield at Newlands the Bok veteran definitely can make a contribution to South Africa’s World Cup success.