In Stephen Nell’s book Springbok Glory: Golden Moments in the Modern Era, Jake White speaks candidly about how he managed Victor Matfield’s strong personality in 2004. And the relationship might never have lasted had it not been for John Smit.
White’s recall of lock Victor Matfield for the home leg of the Tri-Nations would end up being of particular significance as South Africa probably would not have won the tournament otherwise.
Matfield delivered a man-of-the-match performance in the decisive 23-19 victory over the Wallabies on 21 August 2004. He dominated the lineouts and scored the try that swung the match early in the second half.
This was after White’s medical staff sent him home during their tour for an examination of an “injured” knee. Matfield played for the Blue Bulls on the same weekend that South Africa squared up to the All Blacks in Christchurch, suggesting there were differing views on whether he was indeed injured.
In his absence, both Albert van den Berg and Gerrie Britz were tested – and found wanting – in the No 5 jersey.
With regard to the much-publicised personality clash between White and Matfield, the coach said his decision to call up Van den Berg was partly a bit of people-management.
“It’s significant that Victor was the man of the match in both the World Cup final of 2007 and the match that clinched the Tri-Nations in 2004. It shows how good he was, but also that he had to be managed,” says White.
“Victor was one of those players who liked to do things his way and didn’t really like it when a coach pulled in the reins. At that time he was also injured and I wasn’t going to take a risk.
“He was told by the medical staff that he wasn’t going to play (against a combined Pacific Islands team in Gosford). He played for the Blue Bulls and was poor. I then brought him back because I realised I needed him.
“If he was fit enough, he could play. I was never going to drop him on performance. He was only going to get dropped if he was injured. But I think he also realised then that he had to start playing well.”
White was also keen to create competition for the No 5 jumper. He had a number of candidates for the No 4 jersey, but beyond Matfield not much in the way of potential lock partners for the likes of Bakkies Botha and Quinton Davids.
“I brought in Albert to create pressure in the position. I didn’t want a
situation where Victor thought he had an easy road to selection.
“My point is that Victor probably didn’t take kindly to that because he felt like he had an open-ended ticket into the team. The pressure I created was something that he had to control and work with.
“I wasn’t trying to be a smart-ass. I needed to create pressure for that No 5 jersey. We didn’t have competition for the position of the tall, athletic, jumping lock. I had plenty of the bashing, direct, ball-carrying locks that could jump at the front of the lineouts.”
Smit has a different perspective on the issue and described White and
Matfield’s relationship as a “work in progress” all the way through to 2007.
He also believes that White was concerned that Matfield had designs on his position as captain.
The coach was always unshakeable in his belief that Smit was the right leader for the side and had gone as far as making the captaincy appointment even before the international season had kicked off.
It was a move for which White copped a lot of criticism because it rendered
the performance of all of South Africa’s other hookers in the 2004 Super Rugby tournament irrelevant regarding potentially making the starting line-up. They could not make the side as long as Smit stayed fit.
But White was a coach with a plan and he would always stick to it.
Smit believes that Matfield would have been quite capable in the role of Springbok captain – as the great lock would later prove himself to be – but at the same time he never felt threatened. In fact, he believed that
Matfield’s exceptional talent would be an important element in the side and fought for his selection.
Smit describes White as an “old school” coach, who was also irritated with the lock in his mind for being something of a fancy dan.
“I think he sometimes misunderstood Victor. Victor was a natural born leader in his own right and could easily have done the job of Springbok captain. But it was either his hair, the colour of his boots or something else that irritated Jake.
“I literally had to fight for his selection on a weekly basis. Thankfully Victor was such a special player that it was abundantly clear to Jake that he was the best No 5.
“The first two years were definitely the hardest because Jake felt Victor spelled trouble. I wanted Victor in the team.
“Jake is so old school. It was how he created his career as a coach. He wanted to make a statement and teach Victor a lesson.
“So Gosford I doubt was about a knee injury. It was probably about setting the tone and showing who is boss. At the back of Jake’s mind it was probably a situation of ‘Victor will be my 5. Let me just show him . . .’.”
Springbok Glory : Golden Moments in the Modern Era is available in leading book shops and online. It is also available in Afrikaans as Bokspronge: Goue Oomblikke in Springbokrugby.