Having Bakkies Botha sitting next to him on the bus to Newlands last week was a scarcely believable moment for Victor Matfield as the former Toulon lock headed to his return to international rugby with the Springboks against the World XV.
Matfield, who had retired from rugby after the 2011 World Cup, was not only having his first taste of international rugby for nearly three years, but coach Heyneke Meyer had handed him the captaincy in the absence of the injured Jean de Villiers.
Botha, his “blood brother”, had already announced himself as ready to return to the highest stage when he brought all his old physicality and presence to the Springboks’ 19-10 victory over France in Paris last November.
“Bakkies and I looked at each other on the bus and we both said we just couldn’t believe that here we were, sitting together again on our way to playing for South Africa again. It was very special, such a proud moment and it was fantastic to play for the Springboks next to Bakkies again,” Matfield said.
Following their impressive performances against the World XV, Matfield and Botha will once again lock the Springbok scrum in the Test against Wales in Durban on Saturday. Matfield will captain the team for the 18th time as he equals John Smit’s record of 111 Tests for South Africa, last week’s game being a non-cap international. They will extend their world record of matches together in the second row to 63 Tests.
Matfield will no doubt think back to Wellington 2011 when he thought he had shared his last Springbok changeroom with Bakkies as the current Toulon lock left the World Cup early with an achilles tendon injury.
“I knew my old lock partner was in a bad state and he broke the news to us during our Bible study session that he had asked to be sent back to South Africa to have an operation. I was shattered because old Bakke and I had a fantastic partnership in the scrums and his withdrawal meant that he wouldn’t be there when I played the last Test of my career. I had a lump in my throat,” Matfield said in his autobiography.
But Matfield returned to SuperRugby this year to help out a Bulls side badly in need of experience and had enough of an impact for Meyer, the coach with whom he has had the best relationship through his career, to choose him again for the Springboks.
And Matfield had a fine game against the World XV, controlling a slick lineout just like in the old days and impressing with his work-rate around the field. Botha, fresh from winning the European Cup and Top 14 with Toulon after three-and-a-half months out with a broken arm, had a massive game in the tight-loose and was named man of the match.
“Last November when I was first recalled to the side there were a lot of new faces, but now this second time it was great to see some of the old faces again and it remains a massive honour to play for the Springboks,” said Botha.
“It is always nice to play alongside Vic, he brings that calmness and confidence with him. I just have to look at his body language to know exactly what he is going to do.
“And now that he has lost a few kilos it will be easier to lift him,” joked Botha.
Rugby is clearly like a drug for these two great locks, both veterans of South Africa’s 2007 World Cup triumph, but their partnership and friendship is also among the most enduring in sport.
Their weddings were a day apart and they shared their Bulls benefit season together, running the Blood Brothers fundraising campaign for various charities.
And old age – Matfield is 37 and Botha 34 – does not seem to be slowing them down on the field either.