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Victor Matfield says South Africa's World Cup countdown begins with Saturday's match against Ireland

Victor Matfield says South Africa's World Cup countdown begins with Saturday's match against Ireland

SPORTSFILE

Victor Matfield says South Africa's World Cup countdown begins with Saturday's match against Ireland

VICTOR MATFIELD remains the incredible bulk.

As he curls his two-metre frame into an inadequately sized chair and, as stealthily as is allowed, stretches some 110kg of the finest Pretoria beef to greet the morning, even this legend's sheer presence portrays an eminence that embraces both poise and power.

Little wonder that, following a two-year hiatus from a sport in which he competed supremely for more than a decade, he has been warmly embraced following his shock decision to re-emerge.

But this is not an exercise in valedictory vanity; the 2007 World Cup winner seeks to add a second title to his elongated roster of honour and, as Jean De Villiers, the former Munster centre and current Springbok captain, outlined to the squad last weekend, that journey begins against Ireland this week.

Matfield, who will be 38 when the ol' man river rolls into England for next year's World Cup, didn't face Ireland for the first time until his fourth season of international rugby.

There will be just two survivors from the starting line-ups this Saturday; Matfield and his perennial sparring partner, Paul O'Connell, for whom aerial battle mixes a complex confection of tactical nous and sheer brawn and athleticism.

"I'd have said you were crazy," he smiles when asked if he thought then he would he preparing to don the Springbok jersey for a 118th time, a record for a South African. "I'm still here. I'm still enjoying it. It's a good time."

The mutual respect between Matfield and the giant Munster lock is well versed, as the former reiterated yesterday, following in the footsteps of O'Connell's weekend tribute.

But it is another veteran of that 2004 Bloemfontein defeat, Brian O'Driscoll, who engages Matfield's keen mind when asked to expand upon his reasons for returning to the fold when most other mortals would be content to go out to pasture.

"Brian has been an outstanding player for Ireland," says the Bulls icon, who famously tussled with the Irish legend during the infamous second 2009 Lions Test.

"By the way, I thought it was very funny that he stopped a year before a World Cup, or a year and a half out from a World Cup."

O'Driscoll's body was failing him, though, and, just as he only decided to persevere in green thanks to an inspirational head coach, Matfield's own decision to prolong his career was predicated upon the influence of a significant mentor, current coach Heyneke Meyer.

"For me it was all about when Heyneke came to see me and we spoke about the fact that he thought I could make a difference in the World Cup next year," explains the always thoughtful Matfield.

"I had to go and sit down and think about it. Would I be fit enough? Am I keen enough? Will I work hard enough to be on top form to make that difference when it comes to the World Cup?

"So those were the decisions that went through my head. It made it easier for me because I worked all my life with the coaches, Heyneke, Johann van Graun and John McFarland (the Belfast-born assistant coach).

"They were like mentors to me when I was a young player. So having them in the management made it much easier."

Matfield took time to pop into Gleeson's of Booterstown for a brief Irish welcome last weekend after the squad landed but De Villiers later outlined the studied intent of a squad that, from this remove, seems as coherent as any since their last World Cup triumph.

"We're looking at this tour differently," he adds. "Jean said it on Saturday that there were 365 days to the final. So this is not an end-of-year tour. This is the beginning of the year that we want to win the World Cup."

There is no Gert Smal to count to ten in Afrikaans this time around but, nonetheless, the twin towers of Matfield and O'Connell will commit to an eye-popping, sky-scraping battle.

"He's a fantastic player," offers Matfield. "I have said it before, I think he's probably the best player that I have played against in my career. He is also a student of the lineout.

"You can see he puts in a lot of hours in analysing and preparing and getting his whole unit ready for the weekend. So it is always tough going up against him."

Matfield's role as Bulls attack coach also sees him act as a crucial buffer between coaches and players. Handré Pollard, the gifted 20-year-old out-half, has benefited from the calm assurance of his veteran team-mate during his meteoric rise this summer.

Pollard, who was merely toddling when Matfield took his first steps in professional rugby with the Griquas in Currie Cup fare, clearly infects Matfield with his youthful enthusiasm.

Matfield, though, explains that the expansive style that was deployed to such stunning success against the All Blacks last time out in Ellis Park may not necessarily be replicated. There are many ways to win.

"Well, that's the way we played in the last two games but we'll have to see how we play on Saturday," he winks. "We'll have to see what the conditions are like. We've always said, especially now with this group, it's always a game of decision-making.

Factoring

"A lot of the time, it's not decided beforehand. Rather it's decided on the pitch in the exact moment beforehand, based on what's in front of you, what you want to play and factoring in decisions.

"For Handré, it's even better for me because I'm his coach at the Bulls. I worked with him quite a bit last year in the pre-season. Working with him, I just knew from the beginning what a special player he is. It's fantastic to see these guys coming through for the national team.

"The more options there are for Handré, the better he can play. He can make good decisions. He is always a threat himself as well. That makes a big difference.

"What helps Handré as well is it is not very far from the way we do it at the Bulls. He is just an outstanding player. But he needs the guys around him to play well. It helps Jean is there to communicate with him the whole time.

"The All Blacks is over and done with. It's behind us. This is a new challenge. It doesn't help to have one good game. We should always be beating the All Blacks at home.

"That's the way we see it. We're very happy we did that. But this is going to be just as hard.

"Ireland on their home patch as Six Nations champions, they're a very good side and they're a team that is very confident."

The old school never underestimate a thing.

Irish Independent