The story is Bekker … not Matfield
19 Apr 2012
MARK KEOHANE says Victor Matfield’s probable short-term return to the Boks will not define the team’s results. It is the long term presence of Andries Bekker that is much more significant.
On Wednesday night I got a text from a colleague cautioning the following: ‘Before you write your Victor piece you have to know how much weight he has lost and how lean he is since retiring.’
I appreciated the message, but I’d have to be blind not to have noticed that Matfield, like any other professional athlete, is in a different kind of physical shape post retirement. Some balloon and others revert to a more natural leanness because there is no longer a need for supplementation and protein shakes.
Should Matfield return to Test rugby and captain the Springboks against England there will be huge focus on his physical appearance, his physicality and his ability to keep pace. He has been out of the game for six months and Heyneke Meyer’s intention to get one more international season out of Matfield is a massive call for both the coach and the former Bulls and Bok lineout king.
Coaches are defined by their selections as these determine the results on which they are judged. Meyer, on being appointed, said he wanted to install a winning mentality and an attitude that makes every Test (and not just World Cups) a priority.
He also said he would pick what he believed to be the best available or best suited side every weekend. He did not speak about building for the World Cup in 2015 but about winning consistently and in doing so arriving in England with a good chance of succeeding at the World Cup.
Selecting Matfield, therefore, shouldn’t be seen as an affront to the 2015 World Cup campaign. It doesn’t mean Meyer won’t be prepared to select youngsters in his first season. He has said it will be a mixture of experience and youth, but clearly it tells you he doesn’t share the view of so many that Andries Bekker is the natural successor to Matfield. The urge to recall Matfield is a scream to Bekker to get it right because he simply hasn’t reached the highs of 2009 when he was the form lock in South Africa.
Bekker subsequently has struggled with injury and with off-field issues, including divorce. He’s had a tough time emotionally and there are concerns at a national coaching level that mentally he isn’t yet strong enough to lead the Bok challenge.
Meyer has not made the call to turn to Matfield in isolation. Rassie Erasmus has been hugely influential in wanting Matfield back for one season. Erasmus is of the view Matfield retired a year too early and that it was emotionally driven. He is also concerned that Bekker’s career has stalled at a time when it should be nearing an apex.
Meyer has no doubt Matfield mentally can deal with the demands of playing one more international season, but the question is whether Matfield can get his body into shape in the next month and will there be enough game time in Super Rugby for him to be an imposing presence against England?
There is no substitute for playing and there is never a substitute for a good pre-season conditioning programme. Matfield, because of retirement, has enjoyed neither in the last six months.
I can understand and appreciate why Meyer would turn to Matfield and there are all sorts of convincing arguments that can be made in defence of the decision. Personally I would not select him and I’d entrust the best of what is available to do a job. I’d then identify Bekker as the go to man and give him the confidence he is the favoured selection if fit. Once a player has a coach’s confidence he can do wonders. When he knows he doesn’t have it he’ll often wonder why he is even there.
I am not concerned at whether or not Matfield plays against England or in any other internationals this season. The Boks should beat England, with or without Matfield. If anyone felt this was not possible then Bok rugby would be in serious trouble.
There is so much talent available to Meyer, both domestically and among the very good South Africans playing abroad. I am confident he will find the balance in selection during the course of the year and I am equally confident that the results will favour the right identification having been made in selections.
What is crucial to any potential Meyer success is that he never stops trusting his gut instincts. He has to do it his way and he has to be true to his philosophy and his views. I worked with Bok coaches and have written about so many of them and, without fail, there comes a time when they are influenced by public opinion, the media and the opinions of other coaches and they betray what they believed in.
Former Bok coach Peter de Villiers will forever curse that he did not trust his initial belief in how the Boks should play in 2008 or which players were capable of delivering on his philosophy. He reverted to popular opinion and the demands of senior players and never followed through on the game he anticipated he would showcase the world.
When 2007 World Cup-winning coach Jake White brought back Os du Randt in 2004 there was as much disbelief (as there is with Matfield) and few imagined Os could still play a role, let alone be one of the stars in a winning World Cup four years later.
Meyer has worked with Matfield for the last decade. No coach knows him better and the player has always been clear that Meyer is the coach that most inspired him.
If Matfield is to return, then it is imperative that an equal emphasis is put on his mentorship of Bekker, who cannot be discarded on the basis of form. There has to be an investment in his talent and Matfield is critical to that investment, in the guise of short-term captain or as the long-term lineout consultant specialist.
Meyer this week will have experienced for the first time that everyone is a national selector and everyone has a view. The thing he needs to remind himself constantly is that he is the only one who will lose his job; alternatively do well enough to keep it.
He has to be true to his own beliefs and if that means making Matfield his captain in the first year while he settles as national coach then that is what he must do.
Again would I – or many of you – pick Matfield in the current circumstance? The answer is no, but then we don’t take responsibility for the Bok result.
Meyer does, and while he may feel he needs Matfield short term, I’d suggest he needs Bekker more in the long term.