Matfield still looms large

Victor Matfield may have hung up his playing boots but his set-piece nous has played a big part in the Bulls’ success this season and is a concern for the Stormers ahead of Saturday’s big derby.

Not much has changed. Matfield is no longer the man who wears the iconic No 5 jersey, but he is still the brains behind the Bulls lineout. Having made the transition from player to lineout consultant, he has continued to provide invaluable input and is one of the reasons why the Bulls have enjoyed sustained success in this department despite losing a clutch of Test forwards at the end of 2011.

Nothing’s changed in that the Stormers are still concerned about Matfield’s influence ahead of a big north-south derby. In a recent interview with SA Rugby magazine, Andries Bekker confessed that Matfield was close to unbeatable at the lineout during his playing days, and that he used to get very little sleep ahead of a match-up with the lineout legend.

Bekker won’t be competing against Matfield this Saturday but he will be jumping against Matfield’s disciples, and of course there is also the fact that while Matfield no longer leads at this set piece, he still features prominently in terms of analysis and preparation.

Coming back from a broken ankle that ruled him out of the 2011 World Cup, Bekker has been solid in the 2012 Super Rugby competition rather than spectacular. While Bekker is not yet back to his best, the stats will confirm that the Stormers lineout has not only banked the majority of their own ball in 2012, but also contested strongly with an average of three lineout steals per game.

Nevertheless, they have not been as accurate as the Bulls and thus not as dominant. The Bulls made an early statement when they outmuscled the Sharks in round one, and it was at the lineout and kick-offs where they really troubled the men from Durban. Flip van der Merwe proved a fine replacement for Bakkies Botha, and Juandré Kruger really embraced the Matfield-type role.

Kruger has played a massive part in the Bulls’ success at this set piece, both as the lineout manager who makes the on-field calls and as the individual who so often effects that crucial steal or reliable take in the air. He will be the Bulls’ go-to man again this weekend, but the Stormers are also wary of what the Bulls’ brains trust, read Matfield, have prepared for the occasion.

‘They’ve been very good at the lineout, and it’s because of Victor’s influence,’ Stormers forwards coach Matt Proudfoot told keo.co.za. ‘His philosophy is still evident in the way they play and in a sense it’s worse for us now because he has the extra time to analyse and plan a strategy against us. Then the lineout as a unit [the Bulls players] has also been exceptional.’

Proudfoot refused to get caught up in the hype around a perceived battle between the incumbent No 5s, Bekker and Kruger. He instead suggested that the lineout that turns in the best collective performance at Newlands will prosper – both in terms of setting a good attacking platform and disrupting that of the opposition.

‘The Bulls have four Boks in their tight five, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that their forwards have done so well,’ said Proudfoot. ‘They haven’t changed much in their game plan, and there’s still a strong influence from people who have been involved in that set-up for a long time. They’ve also executed very well, and that has been the key to their success.

‘We want to create the same culture. You can’t be dominant if your execution levels aren’t high. We haven’t been quite as accurate as we should have been and it’s something we are working hard to rectify. One guy falls asleep for a second, and it could cost you. We need to be more consistent.’

Proudfoot explained that the quest for perfection would extend to other departments of the game. There have been some encouraging performances in terms of physicality and the scrum has impressed, particularly in that match against the Blues, but there is still work to be done ahead of what will be more testing battles over the next few weeks.

Following Saturday’s fracas with the Bulls, the Stormers will fly to New Zealand to tackle the hard-nosed Highlanders and All Blacks-laden Crusaders in successive weeks. Thereafter, they will cross the Tasman to face the current Super Rugby champions in Brisbane and then finish their Australasian sojourn with a game against the combative Force.

Physicality is a prerequisite, but a high degree of accuracy will be needed to overcome the respective Antipodean packs. The Stormers forwards will thus hope to build some momentum and confidence with a sharp showing against the Bulls this Saturday, and maintain a high standard throughout the four-game tour.

By Jon Cardinelli