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Age is no barrier

Daniel Gallan

With 148 Test appearances, five Six Nations titles, three Grand Slams, one British & Irish Lions series triumph, and an OBE medal, Alun Wyn Jones scarcely needs anyone leaping to his defence where his reputation is concerned.

But if the Wales skipper, who will don the Lions armband in South Africa on his fourth tour, ever feels the need for an emotional pick-me-up, he need only turn to another titan of the game who’d be more than happy to oblige.

“He’s a phenomenal player and an immense character,” Victor Matfield tells The XV. Beyond the mutual respect fostered on and off the pitch, the former Springbok lock recognises some of the barbs projected towards Jones.

“I’ve read a lot and heard a lot of talk about how he’s too old, how he can’t contribute anymore because he’s 35, but that’s nonsense,” adds Matfield, who represented his country 127 times, making him South Africa’s most-capped player of all time.

Alun Wyn Jones
Alun Wyn Jones enjoys the victory after the third Test on the last Lions tour to South Africa in 2009 (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

“I know I‘d already won a World Cup and a Lions series but I believe that I was playing my best rugby in 2011 when I was 34. I was still playing for the Boks at 37. I remember hearing how I was past it so many times. People kept writing me off because of my age. Age is not a problem. I watched Wales over the Six Nations and it was obvious that Alun Wyn is still a huge presence on the field.”

How can you get in a group like this and all of a sudden you need to pull guys together when you haven’t pulled your country together? That’s the most important job of a captain, more important than winning a collision or stealing a few lineouts.

Victor Matfield

Beyond his contributions as a player, it is Jones’ less empirical traits that Matfield believes makes his selection a no-brainer: “It was the right decision to select him as captain. There was a lot of talk of [Maro] Itoje getting it, but he’s not even captain of England. How can you get in a group like this and all of a sudden you need to pull guys together when you haven’t pulled your country together? That’s really the most important job of a captain, more important than winning a collision or stealing a few lineouts,” said Matfield.

Free from official leadership duties, Matfield believes that we will see the best of Itoje. He describes the England star as “world class” and suggests he may be the most all-round lock in world rugby. And though that is undoubtedly a glowing endorsement, Matfield does wonder if Itoje’s wider skill-set is lacking in depth.

Maro Itoje
Matfield believes Itoje is ‘world class’ wouldn’t have been the right choice for Lions captain (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

“He gives you everything, but is he the best at one particular thing?” said Matfield. “Is he the most physical lock? No. Is he the best at the lineout? No. Is he the best with ball in hand? I don’t think so. He can do everything but he’s almost like an extra loose-forward rather than a pure lock. In fact, I’ve always thought his best position is flanker.”

Matfield uses Pieter-Steph du Toit as evidence to support his theory. The 2019 World Rugby Player of the Year made his Springbok debut at lock, replacing Eben Etzebeth after 68 minutes at the Millennium Stadium in 2013. At 6ft 7in – two inches taller than Itoje – the second row seemed a natural home for Du Toit.

But his proclivity to get involved across all areas of the park, his natural athleticism, as well as an “unwillingness to put in the hard work at the lineout” as Matfield puts it, meant he has flourished at blindside.

“One of the great things about myself and Bakkies,” said Matfield, referencing his all-conquering union for club and country with Bakkies Botha, “is that we were so different. We were specialists at what we did. If either of us was less equipped in any department our partnership wouldn’t have been as successful.”

Victor Matfield Bakkies Botha
Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha were arguably the best-ever second-row pairing (Photo by Martin Bureau/AFP via Getty Images)

Matfield and Botha started a record 62 Tests alongside each other, winning two Tri-Nations, a World Cup and a Lions series together. With the Blue Bulls they helped forge a dynasty, lifting three Currie Cups and three Super Rugby titles between 2002 and 2010. Matfield the general; Botha the enforcer, they ticked every box that needed ticking from the second row.

There was a time, however, when their prowess was called into question. It was the eve of the first Test of the 2009 Lions series. Matfield and Botha were sitting next to each other and fielding queries from a collection of probing journalists.

They wanted to know if the Springbok duo had lost their potency. If Paul O’Connell and Jones had usurped them as the most effective lock combination on the planet. If the Springboks would be prey to the carnivorous pride of Lions ready to tear them apart in Durban.

“I remember Bakkies giving me a nudge with his knee and I saw the look in his eye. I thought, ‘You guys really shouldn’t be saying this to Bakkies’. I knew they were in trouble. If Bakkies was up for it, the whole pack would be up for it.

Victor Matfield

“They were speaking as if the Lions were favourites,” said Matfield with an incredulous chuckle. “It’s amazing how quickly they forgot that we were world champions with so many of the same players still in the side. The year before we beat New Zealand in Dunedin and we were made up of so many Bulls players who had just beaten the Chiefs [61-17] to win our second Super Rugby title in three years.

“I remember Bakkies giving me a nudge with his knee and I saw the look in his eye. I thought, ‘You guys really shouldn’t be saying this to Bakkies’. I knew they were in trouble. If Bakkies was up for it, the whole pack would be up for it.”

Indeed, the Springbok forwards laid the foundation for a 26-21 win built on a dominant performance by a still relatively unknown loosehead by the name of Tendai ‘Beast’ Mtawarira. It is no secret that the South Africans pride themselves on a muscular brand of rugby. Big hits and rumbling mauls are encoded into the self-aggrandising mythology. Sure the Kiwis, Aussies and even the French and Irish traditionally play a more expansive game, but when it comes to a wrestle in the mud, few teams are more eager and better equipped than the Boks.

Billy Vunipola
Victor Matfield says the Lions could miss the physicality of England No8 Billy Vunipola (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

“If there is one criticism I have of this Lions team it is that they lack a bit of that physicality,” said Matfield. “I know they haven’t been 100 per cent fit recently, but I would have selected Manu Tuilagi and Billy Vunipola. If they could have played that first Test I would have taken them. If you want to beat South Africa in South Africa, then you need to stand up to them physically. I wonder if this group of Lions can match the Springboks to a man.”

If the Lions are lacking in brute strength, extra emphasis will be placed on securing quick, clean ball from the lineout. And though Matfield doesn’t wholly endorse Itoje’s set-piece credentials and concedes that Jones has lost at least some of his potency, he has no hesitation in singing the praises of his former Northampton Saints team-mate Courtney Lawes.

I used to have a negative opinion about him, I thought he was a little dirty. But when I played with him I realised how hard he tackles, how good he is in the offload… I think he’s the complete second rower

Victor Matfield

“Now that’s a lineout specialist,” said Matfield. “But he has also got other strings to his bow. I must admit that I used to have a negative opinion about him when I first played against him. I thought he was a little dirty to be honest. I felt he hit guys late and wasn’t actually that physical. But when I played with him I realised how hard he tackles, how good he is in the offload. He’s a really laid-back character and that can give the impression that he doesn’t care. But he does. He has a phenomenal engine. I think he’s the complete second rower.”

Our conversation turns to the towering men Lawes, Itoje and Jones will face in Cape Town and Johannesburg. A seemingly endless production line of elite-level locks has been providing the Springboks with a plethora of options in this position. But injuries to Etzebeth (broken finger), Lood de Jager (torn meniscus) and RG Snyman (ACL strain) has left Jacques Nienaber and Rassie Erasmus worryingly short in a once plentiful department. Of the four locks that featured at the World Cup final, only Franco Mostert is fully fit.

Pieter-Steph du Toit
Pieter-Steph du Toit, one of the Boks’ biggest threats, enjoys his crowning moment in the 2019 World Cup final (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

“I think we’ll be alright,” said Matfield, though the change in his tone and the involuntary sigh that precedes his words bely his optimism. “The three injured guys would walk into any team in the world, so there is obviously a concern there. I think the guy who is the most important is Eben. He’s really the only forward lock of the group and is the most physical. RG and Lood can play there, but they’re better at the back. I wouldn’t say the series depends on them being fit, but it could be the difference.”

Matfield understands that Lions series are won and lost by the barest of margins. In 2009 the contest was decided in the second Test at his home ground of Loftus in Pretoria thanks to two individual moments of magic.

The match was a gripping, undulating encounter. The Lions took an early lead though Stephen Jones’ third-minute penalty and would not relinquish it until the 74th minute, when Jaque Fourie collected the ball on the overlap near the right touchline, ran over Luke Fitzgerald and brushed off another two tacklers to score World Rugby’s try of the year for 2009. “No one else in the world at that time could have done that,” said Matfield.

I went to John Smit immediately and told him, ‘You’re giving this to Morne’… He was so calm. He just slotted it over. There was never any doubt.

Victor Matfield

Another Jones penalty evened the contest and the Lions were on the brink of keeping the tour alive before Ronan O’Gara was found guilty of taking out Fourie du Preez in the air inside Springbok territory. With the final siren already sounded, someone would have to nail a 55m kick to win the Test, and the series, for the Springboks.

“I went to John [Smit] immediately and told him, ‘You’re giving this to Morne’,” said Matfield, recounting the instruction he gave to the Springbok captain to trust in his Bulls team-mate Morne Steyn, who made his international debut the week before. “I don’t think he had missed a kick at Loftus all year. He was so calm. He just slotted it over. There was never any doubt.”

The Lions would claim a consolation win in the series finale at Ellis Park against a Springbok side without Matfield’s other half. “Bakkies was banned [as a result of a dangerous hit on Adam Jones that left the Welshman with a dislocated shoulder] and it was a real blow,” said Matfield. “It was a bit of a distraction and we weren’t as switched on as we should have been.”

Though the series ended on a sour note as far as the Springboks were concerned, Matfield places the experience on par with the victorious 2007 World Cup.

“In some ways, it’s even more special,” he said. “After we won the World Cup, I signed with Toulon and became the highest-paid player in the world. But I couldn’t play for the Springboks. When I realised that the Lions tour was coming, I made sure I came back home. I played in four World Cups but I’d only have one chance to play against the Lions. It really is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

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