When I first heard the rumours that Meyer was in talks to extract the living lineout legend, Victor Matfield, from his well-deserved retirement to captain the Springboks in the upcoming Test series against England, I had to double- check my calendar to see that we had in fact moved past 1 April.
My second response was that this was a notion so unthinkable that I actually hesitated before adding my retweet to the rumour mill that was now brewing in the interwebs.
As a servant of the game, and a master of so many of its facets, rugby fans will always speak of Matfield as the equivalent of a rugby god (except that his feats were real, captured on countless recordable devices and millions of people weren’t killed in his name).
In a sport that draws so much blindingly passionate support from each country, even opposing teams and fans recognised the former Bok as a player without equal during his prime.
By the time the England Test series rolls around, Matfield will have blown out 35 candles on his most recent birthday cake. And while the 110-test veteran had a decent World Cup in New Zealand last year, and would undoubtedly have the determination and commitment to get into required physical shape for Test rugby, it doesn’t say much for SA Rugby and Meyer’s strategic thinking to lure the big fella away from the comfort of commentator’s couch and on to the field.
To bring back Matfield as player and captain seems more than odd, on both counts. While the Boks have lost their most successful captain in history, I don’t believe the void of leadership abilities is that great to have to revert to Matfield, who hardly proved to be a captain of the same pedigree as John Smit. (Think of the Fiji game in the 2007 World Cup).
In Schalk Burger, Heinrich Brüssouw, Bismarck du Plessis and Jean de Villiers, Meyer will have a range of senior players who will be able to shoulder the captain’s burden at international level, albeit a role they will need to grow into. No team has the luxury of never-ending continuity and the Boks will need to go through a rebuilding phase, just as New Zealand will when Richie McCaw finally succumbs to years of grievous bodily harm. But the Springboks are fortunate that the transition will not be as tumultuous, given the number of senior players still in action.
As for the depth of locking talent in South Africa, we certainly have a pool of players that would wreak havoc at lineout time as well as bully the opposition senseless. Of these towering giants, Andries Bekker, Flip van der Merwe, a makeshift Willem Alberts or even the young Stormers prodigy, Eben Etzebeth, would ensure a mean axis of muscle in the second row.
And if Meyer is looking for even more experience among the locks, then he should look no further than Danie Roussouw, who alongside Alun-Wyn Jones was the most outstanding lock of the Rugby World Cup, even outplaying Matfield on most occasions. If Meyer is so desperate to bring Matfield out of retirement, he should have no problem convincing Saru to drop the overseas-player rule for Rossouw, currently plying his trade in Japan.
Since the announcement by former head coach Peter de Villiers to step down, Saru has covered itself in what seems to be its unlimited supply of farm animal excrement. The manner and delay in which Meyer was first appointed and the circus act that followed in getting the assistant coaching positions filled is an indictment on both SA rugby and Meyer.
That it took six months after the World Cup and Meyer’s raiding of the Blue Bulls coaching ranks to find his assistants absolutely beggars belief. Meanwhile, our greatest rivals, New Zealand, had their coaching staff all sorted out within weeks of the World Cup ending, while Saru and Meyer fiddled with indecision and contractual malarkey.
It’s been a trait of way too many Bok coaches that, during rough patches, all lofty ambitions of running rugby and game plans are tossed aside quicker than a dwarf in a Queenstown bar, reverting to conservative, Blue Bulls, 10-man rugby. Meyer has yet to oversee one Test match and already he is sending out SOSes to his Pretoria-based brethren faster than the radio officer on the Titanic.
The assistant coaches of the Springbok team should be people that are qualified enough to be head coaches of other international teams. That’s what New Zealand had, a brains trust of head coaches that Graham Henry could lean on for advice and alternative thinking. Keeping with this notion of forwards and backline coach is a misnomer that only erodes the quality of coaching nous available to the team
Take the forward pack for example. It’s almost impossible for one person to be an expert coach of the front row, locks and loose forwards. If we think one person can impart specialist knowledge to each of those positions, we’re only kidding ourselves. Hence the assistant coaches should rather be international- quality head coaches that bring a different way of thinking about planning and strategy, something the Boks desperately need, and something that Meyer’s chosen assistants are unlikely to offer.
Specialist coaches like Os du Randt for the front-row, and Percy Montgomery for the kickers, could then be employed to micro-coach those individual positions.
My thinking is that to inject a new style of play into the Boks that could obliterate all comers, we need some outside thinking to assist Meyer, and by outside, I mean outside of this country. If Saru had R1,5-million to merely buy out Bulls coaches to stand beside Meyer, then they could have forked out the necessary dosh to get a high-calibre New Zealand coach in the mix. By not picking anyone with foreign coaching experience on the staff, Meyer and Saru have turned a golden opportunity into a golden shower.
I hope I am wrong. But if this is Saru and Meyer’s idea of progress, I fear the period under P Divvy will be deemed a glittering success compared to what is transpiring to be archaic ox-wagon thinking.
Hopefully, sanity will prevail and Matfield will partake in the England Test series wearing a blazer and headset rather than a Springbok jersey. DM