International Rugby, Opinions, Springboks

Matfield plays Eales, in my favourite number 5 match up

Mark Keohane, in his post 1992 Springboks and World XV #DreamTeam, selects the respective South African and international No 5s who made the biggest impression on him during his rugby writing career.

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Adolf Malan wore the Springbok No 5 jersey on South Africa’s international readmission, but South Africa’s premier domestic lock in the mid to late 1980s was finishing a career. South Africa’s return to Test rugby coincided with the end of a particularly talented bunch of rugby players.

Malan is deserving of the introduction to those Springbok locks wearing the Bok No 5 jersey since 1992 and, if anything, it is my compliment to what he achieved for Northern Transvaal back in the 1980s.

Was he the best No 5 lock I have seen since that first Test back against the All Blacks at Ellis Park in 1992? It isn’t a question that would be fair because his last international season as a player was my first as a rugby writer.

What I would say is that whoever was going to follow Malan had some mighty boots to fill, and what I can say with conviction is that a handful of the finest locks to ever play Test rugby since 1992 have added to Malan’s standards and arguably improved on them.

Hannes Strydom wore the Springboks No 5 in the 1995 World Cup final win against the All Blacks. Strydom, with Kobus Wiese, formed a powerful second row combination for Transvaal, whose provincial name would change to the Golden Lions and then the Lions.

This ‘best of’ series looks at individuals as much as it does combinations in certain positions, but the second row is that one position where invariably the best locks came in combinations and didn’t necessarily prosper in isolation.

Some of the best teams I reported on since 1992 had a potent second row and a world class hooker. The three tended to come as a package. Add in the importance of a strong lifting prop, at the lineout and also kick-off receive, and there were some locks who were more imposing because of the strength of those supporting position players.

This collective is what makes the identification of the best individual so difficult and often so contentious. Would the one player have been as good without the other? Some of the best locks I have seen in a Bok jersey have the capability to play either No 5 or No 4 and did a job as a front and middle jumper. Ironically, Mark Andrews and Victor Matfield, two of the world’s best No 5 locks started their international careers wearing the No 4 jersey.

Andrews would win the 1995 World Cup final playing at No 8, as coach Kitch Christie’s creative genius accommodated a forward pack selection to include Andrews and not break up the familiarity of the Transvaal duo of Strydom and Wiese.

Transvaal hooker Chris Rossouw was a late call-up to the 1995 World Cup squad because of first choice James Dalton’s suspension and Christie immediately entrusted Rossouw with starting in the play-offs. Christie backed familiar provincial combinations and felt that Andrews was such a natural talent that he’d be able to transition to No 8 for the biggest game of his career.

Andrews’s athleticism prevailed and Christie wasn’t wrong with his selection. The lock/turned No 8 was outstanding.

Andrews, for those who have never interacted with him, ranks as one of the most passionate and proud Springboks. The cliché that a player lives for a jersey couldn’t be more applicable or appropriate to Andrews.

He was both rugby intellect and rugby enforcer and he was single minded in his approach to the game. The only thing that mattered for Andrews was performance and result, be it for the Springboks or Sharks.

He didn’t like me as a reporter and he felt that I was provincially biased in my reporting. I was based in the Western Cape and outside of the national team, Western Province and the Stormers were the teams I wrote about on a daily basis for much of Andrews’s playing career.

I got to work with Andrews in the Springboks when I was coach Harry Viljoen’s advisor and also the team’s communications manager. I think he always saw me as the enemy, even when I was in the camp, but if we didn’t share a coffee, it didn’t mean I couldn’t recognize the enormity of his contribution to the Springboks and especially the respect he got from the opposition.

I didn’t have to work with Andrews to know how highly he was rated by the opposition because I had to just interact with rugby writers from other countries and interview his rivals. Andrews was one of the first names spoken and opposition coaches would also single him out for praise and for pre-match scrutiny.

Andrews and his front ranker cousin Keith were part of the 1994 Springboks in New Zealand. I got on famously with Keith, but then I don’t know of a rugby reporter, fan or opponent who didn’t take to the charm of ‘Potjie’ Andrews.

Mark, as a character, was very different to Keith, but on that 1994 tour I got some insight into the qualities of Mark’s rugby from Keith. The older cousin was convinced the ‘other’ Andrews was going to be remembered as one of the great Springbok locks.

Keith knew there wasn’t much affection between Mark and myself, but he also knew that when I wrote a match report, I wrote about the quality of the player and his play. Whether he liked me or I liked him, wasn’t a consideration.

In all my years of writing about the Springboks, I can’t recall writing anything but purple prose when it came to Mark Andrews and his rugby. He was the type of player who was the envy of every opposition coach and he was that player you wanted playing for your team.

Andrews ordinarily would walk most ‘best of’ selections as a lock, be it for South Africa or for a World XV. I was in the change room at Eden Park, Auckland, in 2001 when Andrews and Joost van der Westhuizen became the first Springboks to ever reach 75 Tests. It was a very emotional night for both players and they were given the recognition from their teammates. Each was presented with a jersey to honour the achievement, but unfortunately on the night the Springboks couldn’t give them the sought-after win at Eden Park.

Andrews, in 2001, was in his final year of Test rugby and (Victor) Matfield was playing his first international season. Matfield’s first run-on Test was wearing the No 4, with Andrews at No 5.

Andrews had been integral to the Springboks’ 17 successive Test wins in 1997 and 1998 and was comfortably the best lock in the world in that period. Every Springbok coach, from Ian McIntosh (in 1993) to Harry Viljoen (in 2001) picked him. That tells you just how good he was as a player.

Andrews and Matfield, in their respective primes, would have been a devastating second-row combination, with Matfield’s natural game more suited to No 5 and Andrews equally good as a No 4 or No 5.

Springbok fans were blessed to have Matfield as the succession plan to Andrews, just as they were spoilt to have Andries Bekker, Lood de Jager, Franco Mostert and Pieter-Steph du Toit to follow Matfield.

Bekker’s career was plagued by injury but hell he was a good player, whose talent was deserving of more than 29 international appearances.

Lood de Jager’s baby face is a bluff to his toughness, work rate and pedigree as a world-class lock. De Jager has had to overcome two serious injuries but today he is a World Cup winner and I am not alone in believing he has another World Cup gold medal waiting in 2023.

Mostert is another World Cup winner, from the triumph against England in Japan in 2019 and Du Toit in 2019 was named the best player in South Africa and the best player in the world.

Rassie Erasmus, as coach of the Springboks, converted Du Toit to blind side flank and Du Toit proved even better as a No 7 option, if that was possible. Erasmus, like Kitch Christie in the 1995 World Cup final with Andrews and the Transvaal locking duo, didn’t feel he had to make an ‘either or’ choice. He found a place for Du Toit, De Jager and Mostert in his match 23.

Mostert is the most unheralded of the trio but no less effective and within the Bok squad he is not seen as second to anyone.

Erasmus identified each player’s skill set and found a way to make them work in unison over 80 minutes. Rugby, as Erasmus preached in the build-up to his 2019 success, was a game played by 15 on each side, but it was a game won by 23 players.

Andrews flourished playing alongside Erasmus for the Springboks and he would have thrived having Erasmus as a coach.

Matfield is another who may have been even better with a coach as analytical, creative and unconventional as Erasmus.

If I asked every Springbok coach since 1992 to pick only one No 5, I am sure I’d get a few different options. There wouldn’t be a unanimous choice, which again highlights just how good the No 5 options have been since 1992.

Andrews would be favoured ahead of Matfield by those coaches who believed in confrontational and physical locks, but Matfield would get the jersey from those who appreciated the player’s ability to manipulate the opposition mentally, technically and with more than just physicality.

For those who didn’t choose Andrews as a No 5, they’d always have the escape that he gets the No 4 jersey.

For purposes of my choices, I had to go with just one selection and when it came to the No 5 jersey, it was a straight shoot-out between Andrews and Matfield and I just couldn’t look past Matfield’s 127 Test longevity, his man of the match performance in the 2007 World Cup-winning final against England in Paris and the consistency and ease with which he destroyed the confidence of so many international hookers and opposition locks.

Matfield was the master of lineout steals but even more impressive was his ability to mastermind steals. The opposition would try and avoid the ball going anywhere near Matfield, be it at the lineout or the restarts. He did as much with his off the ball presence as he did when on the ball.

Speaking to those coaches who have worked with Matfield, there isn’t one who hasn’t raved about his technical ability and his rugby intellect. Even those Bok coaches who have clashed with Matfield’s personality, like Jake White, applaud his brilliance as a lineout specialist and world class lock.

Matfield was at his best in 2009 when the Springboks beat the British & Irish Lions and won three successive Tests against the All Blacks. In that year he had no equal in the world as a No 5 lock, and there were some massive names wearing the opposition No 5 jersey.

White didn’t like him but picked him and Heyneke Meyer loved the player, trusted him and always believed in him at the Bulls and with the Springboks. Harry Viljoen and Andre Markgraaff, in 2001, immediately knew how good he was going to become. Rudolf Straeuli never took to Matfield’s personality but couldn’t bypass his qualities as a player and picked him and Peter de Villiers knew he had gold in Matfield.

Gold is perhaps not colour enough for what Matfield did when wearing the Bok No 5 jersey. Platinum may be more accurate, and when it comes to picking my best ever No 5 Bok since 1992, Matfield gets the vote.

He played 27 Tests against the All Blacks, 14 of them in New Zealand, and 27 against the Wallabies, with 17 of them in Australia. He was the oldest player to represent the Springboks at the World Cup after coming out of a three-year retirement to play out his career in 2015.

Incredibly, Matfield played 390 professional matches.

Matfield, in his 127 Tests, has seen his fair share of opposition superstars. I know, because he mentioned it on several occasions that he had a healthy regard for All Blacks Ali Williams and Chris Jack, both individually and as a combination. It wasn’t that Williams and Jack necessarily got the better of Matfield; it was more he didn’t always feel he got one over them.

Matfield would take particular joy out of beating the opposition jumper because he had worked out the lineout codes, alternatively beating him because his reaction jump had been quicker and, of course, there wasn’t a greater satisfaction when the opposition hooker froze or the jumpers tap-danced with uncertainty.

The younger Matfield would have many a contest with Williams and Jack and the older Matfield would have to contend with Sam Whitelock, a World Cup winner in 2011 and 2015.

Williams, in rating the best locks he played, always lists Matfield.

‘On the field, Victor was an astute man of the lineout, understood it, great around the field in terms of running the ball and understanding what he needed to do. He was another excellent leader,’ Williams told RugbyPass. ‘He was just as magical off the field. I don’t think there were many Tests where Victor and I didn’t go and have a few beers after the game and go out together. We became really great mates off the field. We really challenged each other.’

Matfield also had a strong rivalry with the late Dan Vickerman, who played for South Africa under 21s before moving to Australia. Vickerman would be to the Australian lineout what Matfield was to the Boks in the mid 2000s.

WATCH: MATFIELD’S CAREER HIGHLIGHTS

Fiji’s Leone Nakarawa, in his 62 Tests for Fiji, and his decade of playing club rugby in France, has always been a beast and had he played for a more competitive Test nation, his is a name that would always be one of the first called.

England’s Danny Grewcock, at 4 or 5, let every opponent know he was around and Martin Bayfield, in tandem with Martin Johnson, made lineout play look simple. Steve Borthwick was the typical English bulldog.

The French always had good locks, whether at No 5 or No 4. Some of their duos over the years were interchangeable in wearing either number, but Olivier Roumat, Olivier Brouzet and Fabien Pelous invariably got positive reviews and Lionel Nallet demanded a mention.

In my early years of writing, Derwyn Jones stood tall for Wales, even if he didn’t stand at all during the 1995 once-off Test against the Springboks at Ellis Park. I was there when Kobus Wiese knocked him cold. Fair play to Jones for still being alive.

Wales’s Alun Wyn Jones is tipped to surpass Richie McCaw’s 148 Tests and if you are Welsh, you don’t look past this man. If you are not Welsh, it’s difficult to ignore his claims to being one of the best, if not the best.

Similarly, Ireland’s Paul O’Connell. Quite simply, a brilliant player and leader and one who reminded me of (Mark) Andrews in his physicality but also in his rugby intellect and lineout subtlety.

Matfield, in 2014, described O’Connell as the best lock he had fronted in his Test career.

‘He (O’Connell) is a fantastic player. I think he’s probably the best player I’ve played against in my career. He is a student of the lineout. You can see he puts in a lot of hours in analysing, preparing and getting his whole unit ready for the weekend. So, it is always tough going up against him,’ Matfield told the Daily Mail.

Ireland’s Paddy Johns, at 4 or 5, made an impression because of his physicality and refusal to be conquered, but he wasn’t quite the all-round machine of O’Connell.

The Pumas were a team whose locks were always brutes, no matter who was wearing the No 5 or No 4. Thomas Lavanini had fire if not finesse and Patricio Albacete ruled the Pumas second row in his 57 appearances. Ignacio Fernandez Lobbe was equally capable and impressive in a No 5 or No 4 Test jersey.

South African-born Carlo del Fava was strong for Italy’s for nearly a decade in the mid-2000s and Marco Bortolemi, in his 112 Tests between 2001 and 2015, was the pillar of the Italian pack. Scotland’s Doddie Weir, Nathan Hines and Jim Hamilton wouldn’t have been out of place in most line-ups.

I found Ireland’s Iain Henderson and Devin Toner, as a combination, posed a big threat, and Australia’s Nathan Sharpe was one hell of a competitor.

New Zealand’s Ian Jones, in the 1990s, was superb, but when it comes to an opposition No 5, and specifically to who I would want to see oppose Matfield, it simply has to be Australia’s John Eales.

What Matfield was to Test rugby in the 2000s, Eales was to the international game in the 1990s. He won the World Cup in 1991 as a youngster and in 1999 led the Wallabies to the easiest of World Cup wins against France a week after being pivotal to the Wallabies 100-minute extra-time 27-21 semi-final win against the Springboks at Twickenham.

I wasn’t at Twickenham for the 1991 World Cup final, but I was there for the 1999 World Cup semi-final and it remains one of the greatest Tests I have ever experienced. There wasn’t a try scored but you couldn’t have scripted a greater contest that showcased every aspect of the game between two sides so evenly matched.

Eales could lead a side and he could play in any side. There wasn’t anything he couldn’t do and his last-minute penalty to beat the All Blacks at Wellington’s Athletic Park was one of those kodak moments. If you saw the kick live, you’d never forget it.

He played 88 times for Australia, 86 of them in the second row and 55 as captain, scored two tries and, for a lock, remarkably kicked 163 points through 31 conversions and 34 penalties.

He won seven of his 13 showdowns with the Springboks and finished his career with a dramatic last-minute 29-26 victory against the All Blacks in Sydney. A crowd of more than 90 000 willed the Wallabies to victory in what was Eales’s last Test.

It was a fitting international finale to one of the greatest Wallabies to play for and captain Australia.

A series win against the Lions had preceded the All Blacks triumph, but what made the win against the All Blacks even more satisfying was it meant Eales finished his Test career with 11 wins from 20 against the men in black and a winner in 78 percent of his 88 Tests.

Matfield versus Eales … who would want to be a hooker at that first lineout throw?

WATCH: EALES’ MATCH WINNING PENATLY

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13 thoughts on “Matfield plays Eales, in my favourite number 5 match up

  1. Kelvin Abrahams says:

    I hadn’t paid too much attention to international players (it was Currie Cup or nothing for me in the early years) other than the stories my father would tell me around the braai. So when Mark Andrews burst into the scene he was the 1st true athletic lock I had seen. There were no doubt many others but Mark was the guy that grabbed my attention. I had seen and appreciated the violence he brought before in the likes of Adri Geldenhuis but never really saw another lock get around the park and link up with the backs like he did. Comfortable with ball in hand but happier hurting people. He was studying at UKZN and I was preparing for a rugby tour to the UK when he gave me training advice at Woodburn Stadium (slight exaggeration saying Stadium). Just 2 guys (I was a kid) putting some extra work and he was decent enough to set aside his stardom to relate to laaitie.

    Andries Bekker is probably my favourite lock of all time. Man I loved watching him. He was so unbelievably tall but had the skill set of a loosie and the grunt of a hooker. I was watching his performance in the 2nd test vs the B&I Lions when he came off the bench and along with Brussouw, Fourie and Steyn saved that test for us. His intensity up front was great, his tackles always had the opposition conceding a meter or 2 and his line out pressure was immense. At the Stormers he was literally and figuratively a pillar of strength. I agree, he deserved a whole lot more Bok caps.

    But I agree with Big Vic Mayfield as the man we trust with the no.5 jumper. A finer lineout technician we will not see, I don’t believe. Add to that his big engine, seemingly never injured and always on hand for a bit of link up play. What an athlete. And a great leader of the forwards and often of the entire team.

    Internationally I always knew the call was going to be John Eales. Eales had the nickname of “Nobody” because as we all know, nobody is perfect! The more I saw of him at Queensland and with the Wallabies the more I realised why he was called “Nobody”. There was nothing he couldn’t do. I hated how good he was kicking for goal. I couldn’t throw the ball over the poles from out in front on the 22m line and here was this giraffe of a man just stroking them over from anywhere.

    Honorable mention to Fabien Pelous and Paul O Connell. Paul was a great of the game and someone I loved watching. Nice to read how highly Vic rated him.

    1. Keo says:

      Hi Kelvin. As I detailed, you can’t go wrong with Andrews or Matfield and there was no coincidence that there was a passing of the mantle. As Andrews departed Matfield emerged and they got to spend the first season of Matfield’s international career playing alongside each other. So the old bull did pass down some tutorship. It reminds me of the one final season Bakkies came back in 2014 and worked with Eben and Pieter Steph for a season. If you picked Andrews and O’Connell, you won’t get many arguments. Personally, though, Matfield and Eales were the epitome, for me, of the modern No 5 lock. So many good players though, in SA and from overseas teams. I was also a big Andries Bekker fan and but for THAT lower back of his, I expected him to become the next big lock star of the world.

      1. Kelvin Abrahams says:

        Spot on Mark. Couldn’t agree more

  2. Jacques says:

    Andrews maybe too good a player to make a best ever xv if that makes any sense. Very few players will make best ever xv if they played their careers in more than one position. Danie Roussouw good example. Frans Steyn another. Andrews was the first lock i could remember who was a true athlete. During currie cup years if a tight five ran to much with the ball he was seen as not doing his job. Andrews was all over the place. Cover tackles, running in the back line while at the same time practicing the dark arts on the front lines. Truly a great player. Matfield on the other hand was just Matfield. Not my type of rugby player but he did what was needed as long as the 4 lock did his part first. I personally feel had Andrews only played lock his entire career and had Harry Viljoen i think it was, not cast him into the wilderness at an early age, 31 or 32, then he and Bakkies would have been a potent combination. Matfield could easily have played of the bench in those early years covering flank and lock. Just imagine Bakkies and Mark packing down together in the second row. Mark would have added some extra grunt without losing much in line out options. But hey, i guess it turned out okay in the end. Nothing against Matfield. He was an excellent athlete with a rugby brain but i always felt he needed Bakkies at his best for Matfield himself to shine.

    Eals i also feel was a bit overrated. But then i didn’t pay a lot of attention the the overseas players unless we played them in the tri nations 3 am in the morning. Can’t remember much about Eals playing super 12. I feel that people make more of a player because he was captain. My pick would have been O’Connell. Again, more brute force with the line out option as well. One of the best players to not win a world cup sadly.
    Love the series Keo, keep up the good work.

    1. Kelvin Abrahams says:

      Nice comment there Jacques. Vic needs a little more credit but. He was a machine whether he had Bakkies, Flip v/d Merwe, Danie Rossouw, Eben Etzabeth or whoever. It’s not really the guy’s fault that we have been blessed with some great locks over the years (not Geo Cronje, Jannes Labuschagne, Quinton Davids and Marco Wetzel) which allowed individuals to shine within their combos.

      I see you enjoyed “die harde manne” by preferring Mark Andrews and Paul O Connell. Nothing wrong with that. I enjoyed your comment bud. Take care

      1. Jacques says:

        I take nothing away from big Vic. Also not trying to belittle his accomplishments. He will be the best no 5 lock in 9.9/10 cases. Just my personal opinion. You are right, i like the hard men of rugby a little more. It’s my achilles heel.. Can’t wait to see who will be up against Bakkies in the next segment. 😃😃

    2. Keo says:

      Hi Jacques. Thanks for reading and lekker that you are enjoying the series. It was Rudolf Straeuli who lost faith in Mark in 2002 but Mark, at that stage, was very gatvol of the constant changes with Bok coaches etc. He had lost that hunger near the end of 2001, having been in the system for a decade that included seven Bok coaches in 10 years. Matfield and Bakkies certainly potent in tandem but there was something out of the ordinary in Matfield’s lineout ability, especially on opposition ball. O’Connell a fabulous player but for me Eales had a few more strings to his bow.

      1. Jacques says:

        Ah yes, it was Straeuli, thanks. 7 Coaches in 10 years? That must be some kind of record. There is no doubt that Matfield was and is till date the best lineout player to play the game. That and the kick-off. Guess i just don’t like a tight five standing in the backline as much he did. Almost like Schalk who played flyhalf under Meyer. 🤔 Only time a tight five should be in the backline is when in the 75th minute of the game he couldn’t get up from the 30th tackle he had to make and then all of a sudden the ball is comming his way.
        But that’s just the old rugby player in me talking. What do i really know?

        1. Kelvin Abrahams says:

          Hahahahahaha! Making his 30th tackle and couldn’t avoid finding himself in play and having to receive a pass. Classic

          Yeah I prefer the 10, 12 or 15 taking the ball up with inside runners as an option but your 9 playing a hit up or 2 to suck in defenders and make some running space out wide is also cool.

          Stormers/WP had Brok Harris as a flyhalf for a few years 🤣🤣 so I know your frustration with The Incredible Schalk at 1st receiver for a season

  3. Ryan says:

    A silly point really given the enormous amount of information in this article but I remember Heyneke Meyer selecting DuToit at blindside first and us public all throwing our toys for him selecting “ another player out of position”?

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