Last week it was John Smit's 100th Test cap, this week it's Victor Matfield's. But win or lose, the Springboks are still in crisis, a year away from the World Cup.
SA Rugby has apparently printed 10,000 facemasks of Victor Matfield to commemorate his 100th Test for the Boks. Played on his home ground, Loftus Versveld, it will be a memorable occasion, but has been overshadowed by the build-up to John Smit’s century in the green and gold.
It’s a significant milestone for both these fine players, who have both won the World Cup, Tri-Nations twice and beaten the British and Irish Lions. Matfield has also lifted the Super Rugby trophy three times (once as the Super 14). After the last heroics at Loftus, where the Bulls retained their Super 15 trophy for a second year, a lot is expected this weekend.
It’s just such a pity that it’s under such dire circumstances, as the lethargic Springboks, with their fatigued senior players, play for pride and to avoid the wooden spoon.
The All Blacks, who insisted on their lap of honour around an emptied FNB Stadium last week after their 29-22 win over a rejuvenated, but clearly out-of-condition Boks, have already secured this year’s Tri Nations trophy.
I’ve spoken to a fair number of people who wish the Bokke will lose so that Peter de Villiers could be fired as coach. These are dark days when Springbok supporters would prefer a loss to a win to get rid of the man who supposedly will take the team to the World Cup next year. Not since 2003 and the horror of Kamp Staaldraad has South African rugby found itself in such a dark place.
It’s painfully obvious that P.Divvy is clueless. He was never particularly comprehensible at the best of times, but he’s become utterly moronic in the last two months. If you listen to him, he’s forgotten the difference between winning and losing – something you’d expect the coach of the current World Champions to firmly grasp.
After the Soccer City defeat, which happened three minutes from the end, Divvy said, “The one mistake I made was becoming caught up in winning and losing again. I lost track of how we played. I watched the match over and over and they made me so proud. They stood up again and again. Five, six, seven minutes stood between us and glory.”
Oh right, we’re back to that nonsense. Winning is everything, Peter. It’s your job to coach a team to victory, not defeat. This is the same man who, after a loss in Durban, said, “There’s little difference between winning and losing, except that one feels better after winning”.
On Saturday at FNB, he also said of the All Blacks: “From where I was sitting looking through my binoculars I could see the fear in their eyes. We thought we had [a win] in the bag.” I’ll warrant a guess that wasn’t fear, but anticipation in the All Blacks’ eyes knowing the Springboks were lumbering around while the All Blacks’ superior fitness kept them in the game.
And, amazingly, De Villiers still needs to “have a look” at Butch James. What … the 35-cap veteran who won the World Cup just three years ago?
Better yet, in explaining why he’s dropped Gio Aplon out of the squad entirely for the returning Frans Steyn, he said: “Gio did not do anything wrong, but we have an opportunity to see Frans play”. No really, he said it. “See Frans play”. The same Frans who was left out of the Soweto game necessitating a clearly struggling Morné Steyn to stay on the field in case of a penalty when James’ line-breaking, confidence-oozing go-forward playing style was desperately needed?
In P.Divvy’s own words: “If you want to run with the big dogs, you have to lift a leg.” Time to lift a leg then, Peter. Or do the right thing and walk away, which might give you a shred of dignity.
But enough of the coach. Saturday, despite whatever happens, will belong to Matfield, who made his debut in June 2001, has scored six tries and has captained the Springboks 11 times. He’s a master of the lineout and arguably the greatest lock South Africa has ever produced, notwithstanding Frik du Preez who commentator-extraordinaire Bill McLaren – the “voice of rugby” – so memorably said “ran like a gazelle”.
Matfield’s mastery is unparalleled. He’s a genius at reading the lineout and opposition throws, snatches possession as if it was thrown to him and is generally a hard worker around the park. He lifted his game in Soweto, but he’s hardly been the Lineout King of old.
Apart from Fran Steyn’s return, the only other change is Jaque Fourie, who returns from suspension. Juan Smith should once again produce go-forward momentum.
Quade Cooper is back for the Wallabies and will bring his sparkle to the backline, while David Pocock is sure to scavenge possession and slow down South African ball. Luckily we have a counter measure…. oh, we don’t. The Springboks haven’t lost to Australia on the highveld since 1963 and odds are they’ll maintain that record and give Matfield a win to celebrate his century. God knows, we deserve it too.
Springboks: Frans Steyn, JP Pietersen, Jaque Fourie, Jean de Villiers, Bryan Habana, Morné Steyn, Francois Hougaard, Pierre Spies, Juan Smith, Schalk Burger, Victor Matfield, Flip van der Merwe, Jannie du Plessis, John Smit (c), Gurthro Steenkamp.
Reserves: Chiliboy Ralepelle, CJ van der Linde, Danie Rossouw, Ryan Kankowski, Ricky Januarie, Butch James, Juan de Jongh.
Wallabies: Kurtley Beale, James O’Connor, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Matt Giteau, Drew Mitchell, Quade Cooper, Will Genia, Richard Brown, David Pocock, Rocky Elsom (c), Nathan Sharpe, Dean Mumm, Salesi Ma’afu, Saia Faingaa, Benn Robinson.
Reserves: Stephen Moore, James Slipper, Ben McCalman, Scott Higginbotham, Luke Burgess, Berrick Barnes, Anthony Faingaa.
By Toby Shapshak
Shapshak is editor of Stuff magazine, and has twice been sports editor of the Mail & Guardian.
Photo: Victor Matfield (L) and captain John Smit of South Africa’s Springboks take part in the captains’ run in preparation for their international rugby test match against New Zealand’s All Blacks in Wellington July 16, 2010. REUTERS/Anthony Phelps
"The soul is known by its acts" ~ Thomas Aquinas