Sport

Grass is less green without Matfield

Andy Capostagno

The Bulls are significantly dehorned with their favourite comeback kid back on coaching duty.

Victor Matfield has made a big impact since returning as a player for the Bulls. (Gallo Images)

If the Bulls are to be believed, they have taken innovation to new heights. Not content with cajoling Victor Matfield out of retirement, as a reward for his rapid return to form they have given the greatest lock this country has produced a mid-season holiday in the Antipodes.

Matfield was with the Bulls when they touched down in New Zealand on Wednesday night, but he is on tour purely in his capacity as a member of the coaching staff. Unless – and it's a big unless – there is an injury crisis.

For the past three weeks, Matfield has been captaining the Bulls in the absence of Flip van der Merwe, and it has been as though he had never been gone. Kick for the corner, win the lineout, and drive the maul over the try line. Then do it again, and keep doing it until the opposition finds a solution. Thus far, none has.

Matfield cannot do it all, of course, and this incarnation of the Bulls pack is significantly weaker than the ones he captained to three Super 14 trophies. Those sides would not have allowed the Chiefs to score three tries in the final 15 minutes to snatch a draw.

Those sides would have caught the ball, and driven it inexorably up-field, eating up the minutes on the stadium clock. They practised holding onto the ball, the coach standing alongside with a stopwatch.

On match days last season, Matfield cut a forlorn figure. He was already part of the coaching staff, but he liked to be involved. To that end, he would walk out with the hookers and use a curious device to help them to practise. It looked a bit like a table tennis bat stuck on to the end of a vaulter's pole and the idea was for the hooker to hit the bat without Big Vic having to move the pole.

Without a flesh-and-blood lineout in front of them, the hookers were rarely on target, and it was possible to imagine them looking up and wondering how on earth anyone could jump that high.

Beach play
Such flights of fancy were child's play for the spring-heeled Matfield, of course, and watching him with his odd contraption looked a lot like a father playing with his sons on the beach.

So, having got used to dad swapping his leisure suit for shorts and a Bulls jersey, now he is gone for a month. And we are asked to believe that Van der Merwe returning from his hamstring injury to captain the side in Matfield's place is a straight swap. It's more like exchanging a Ferrari for a Corolla.

One of the things that Matfield and the rest of the coaching staff will have discussed on the long trip to New Zealand is how the loss of two points last week has affected momentum. They are currently in a logjam of teams, level on 16 points, whereas a win last week would have had them alone in second place.

Their opponents this Saturday are the Hurricanes, who last week beat the Crusaders with an outrageous late try. The 'Canes coaching staff will have gleaned much from the closing stanza at Loftus. They will want to move the heavy Bulls forwards around the field in Napier, relying on the effects of jetlag to do the rest.

Nevertheless, it is not an insurmountable task for the Bulls, although it would have been a lot easier with Matfield in the team. The Bulls cannot complain about their draw, with the following three weeks scheduling them against the Highlanders, the Waratahs and the Force. How the Stormers would have wished for such clemency, instead of four successive clashes with sides that made the playoffs in 2013.

The Stormers return to Newlands this week chastened by their experiences down under, but with a new director of rugby waiting for them in Cape Town. The appointment of Gert Smal may have saved the hide of coach Allister Coetzee, for the pair worked well together at Newlands at the beginning of the new millennium.

Smal is a thoroughly decent fellow whose already vast knowledge of the game has been swelled immeasurably by his sojourn with the Irish Rugby Union. It is rumoured that ill health delayed his appointment to the newly created post, and that in an ideal world he would have been on board at the start of last season's Currie Cup. Be that as it may, it is never too late to do the right thing and Smal's measured approach will bring major benefits to the franchise, as well as the Western Province Rugby Union down the line.

The Sharks have a bye this week, but with a six-point lead at the top of the log they will still be there when they play the Lions at Ellis Park next week.

This week, the Lions host the Crusaders, a team that has humiliated them fairly regularly in the past. But this time around, the Lions are fourth on the log, the Crusaders 13th and it is quite possible to imagine more reasons to be cheerful for Johan Ackermann's men at the end of the weekend.

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