Nothing like a little bit of misinformation and conjecture to liven up an otherwise-dull Tuesday, eh? That seemed to be very much the case yesterday as the South African rugby world tied itself into a frenzy about a ridiculously premature – if not outright fanciful – story that Victor Matfield was about to join the Sharks.
There are many sides and angles to this tale and I’d like to talk a little about each of them; I suppose what I’m trying to say is that this may end up being quite a long article, so please do indulge me!
Firstly, there is very little doubt that Matfield is at least considering, if not already actively planning, a comeback to the game. The reason for that is quite simple, to my mind. Vic had retired and started to forge a new career and a new life for himself, but his friend and mentor Heyneke Meyer has asked him to come back and the bond between the two men, I understand, is such that Matfield could never dismiss such a request out of hand. Meyer’s approach ahead of the England series – and in fact his entire first year at the helm of Bok rugby – would appear to be a low-risk one and while he may not be winning too many friends outside of Pretoria with it right now, we must ever be mindful of how quickly public opinion can turn against a Bok coach should the mighty green and gold lose so much as a single test match. Meyer is the bloke who’s going to have to live and die by the team’s results and while I can’t say I’m relishing the idea of him packing the team with “Bulls has-beens”, I do completely understand that he would want to surround himself with players he knows and trusts while learning the ropes of test rugby.
Victor Matfield – and to a lesser extent Fourie du Preez – are a huge part of that and if there’s any chance that the new coach can coax his former lieutenants back onto the field of battle, that’s exactly what he’s going to endeavour to do. In Matfield’s case, though, it’s not all that straightforward to achieve, as the man is now employed by SuperSport as an analyst and would need to find a way to be released from that contract in order to play. Presumably, he’d want to do so in such a way that the broadcaster would be willing to take him back in a year or two’s time, though, meaning that he’s not going to burn any bridges by simply walking out on his commitment. I’m reliably told that Victor is definitely weighing up all these factors and considering his options. The good money would probably be on a playing return, but my information is that any speculation regarding where he might play provincially is completely premature at this stage.
For the record, I honestly do feel that Matfield could still have something to offer Bok rugby as a player, particularly in light of the second-row crisis that swept the land since the start of Super Rugby. I’m not going to list all the casualties – hell, going through the locks lost by just the Lions this season would take up a page and a half on its own – but with the oft-injured Andries Bekker this week adding his name to the list, Bok rugby is hardly overflowing with quality second-rowers who are fit. Of the youngsters sticking their hands up, it must be remembered that Eben Etzebeth and Juandre Kruger have fewer than 20 Super Rugby appearances between them and nary a test cap in sight. While it would be nice to blood both of them to test rugby this year, I doubt Meyer has any plans to entrust an uncapped lock pair with starts against England. Should he lose Bekker, though, or Flip van der Merwe, that’s exactly what he may be forced to do. By turning to the likes of Matfield, Bakkies Botha and Danie Rossouw, Meyer will know that he’s only delaying the inevitable rather than solving the problem. With the public expecting a big series win over England, though, can you blame the coach for wanting to buy himself some time?
Let’s talk about the Sharks angle, then. When the Matfield return was first mooted, the obvious thing to do would be to look for a place for him to play and with Kruger doing well for the Bulls, the speculation started to run wild. The Cheetahs and Sharks – not having a fit, established option in the number 5 jersey at present – seemed to pop onto the radar and a bunch of journalists in Durban, including the ever on-the-ball Mike Greenaway, picked up on the theme and ran with it, including, it would seem, raising the possibility with the Sharks. Reading between the lines of Greenaway’s article, the suggestion was given short shrift by the Sharks, leading me to conclude that if there is currently any interest in a move, it would be coming from Matfield’s side at this stage, not from the Sharks. Only problem is, according to my information, it’s not… Matfield is still a good few steps away from “asking a team for game time”, for the reasons already described above.
Yesterday’s Twitter story about Matfield being spotted having coffee with Plumtree in Durban was a fabrication. We acted quickly to set the record straight, because we knew it couldn’t have taken place as described for the simple reason that Matfield was in Pretoria all day. The bloke who tweeted the allegation seems to have become a mini celebrity overnight and I’m choosing to believe that he was simply mistaken, perhaps confusing Matfield and Ross Skeate, as one pundit suggested, who do look similar from afar, rather than setting out to deliberately mislead. The real damage was done when others whose voices and opinions and more trusted chose to rebroadcast the incorrect information without checking its veracity first. The first rule of any form of journalism, I would think, is to check the information you disseminate for at least some semblance of truth and in this case the “some bloke on Twitter said so” defence seems a little bit thin.
Would the Sharks actually want Matfield, though? That’s a question that, in itself, has multiple aspects to consider. It’s probably fair to say that it would help to have his experience available, given that both Hargreaves and Skeate are long-term casualties. I wouldn’t dismiss this out of hand, since he could bring a huge amount to the team if used correctly. Whether the management, coaches, fellow players and fans could ever accept this as a workable option, though, would depend on the extent to which they could be convinced that Matfield would be committed to doing what’s right for the Sharks first and foremost. We already know that his primary motivation for playing there would be to advance his own personal agenda and that facet, coupled with deep-rooted feelings that whatever colour jersey he may wear on the outside, Matfield will always be wearing blue underneath, would make this an incredibly tough package to sell to the Sharks faithful.
I’m not holding my breath, in other words, for an announcement that Victor Matfield will play for the Sharks – not one from a source I trust anyway. Then again, a week is a long time in rugby and you can rest assured that we’ll keep you posted on this one if it develops further or, more likely, fizzles out. I can assure you, though, that we’ll do a better job of reporting the true events than other sources seem content to do.Tweet