Finishing his career on a high at the World Cup and having another chance to work with coach Heyneke Meyer were the main reasons Victor Matfield returned to rugby last year after retiring in 2011.
And even the skeptics were won over as Matfield enjoyed a fine season, his excellent form for the Bulls in SuperRugby winning him a return to the Springbok side.
And when the likes of Pieter-Steph du Toit and Flip van der Merwe were injured, the Springboks were reliant on the veteran number five lock to run their lineout, which he did with aplomb.
“There were a lot of challenges last year and it was a big decision to make to play again, it wasn’t easy and I was a bit nervous. But I’m pretty happy with my personal performance.
“Some of the other contenders were injured so it made it a bit easier for me, it opened up a gap for me,” Matfield said.
Having retired at the last World Cup and begun moving into his coaching career at the Bulls, it was Springbok coach Meyer, who coached the Bulls from 2000-2007, who told Matfield he believed he could still feature at this year’s global showpiece, even though he will be 38 when the tournament begins.
“Heyneke told me that if I was at my best, then he knew I would be good enough for another World Cup. But he said I had to play well in SuperRugby. He asked me to come back and knowing I had his backing was a big help in pushing myself.
“It’s one of the big things that motivates me, a new opportunity to work with Heyneke at the Springboks. We were able to build something very special at the Bulls and I was really keen to play with players like Fourie du Preez again, and also guys like Schalk Burger and Jean de Villiers, under Heyneke. And it’s been really successful having all of us back together at the Boks,” Matfield said.
The challenge of getting used to the intense physicality required when playing in the pack in top-class rugby was the first thing Matfield had to deal with, and thereafter it was a mental adjustment.
“It was all about the mindset in the end. When you’re 21, rugby is everything. But when you reach my age, then your marriage and your kids are also very important. But you have to decide to give rugby everything, which is a big decision.
“But with the backing of my family, rugby has become number one again. My wife Monja knows that if I put my mind to something then I am very disciplined about it,” Matfield said.
Matfield was allowed to take it relatively easy in the pre-season by Bulls coach Frans Ludeke but the veteran has played all 240 minutes of their first three SuperRugby games.
“Last year I thought that I was only going to play five or six games, but I ended up playing all of them. And now this year we lost our first two games at home, so the pressure is on again.
“I still hope to get managed in terms of game time because it’s important for your recovery. My fitness is there, but after five or six games it takes longer to recover from the knocks and be ready for the next game at my age,” South Africa’s most-capped player said.
Matfield is confident that Meyer will preside over a successful World Cup campaign, and with De Villiers recovering from knee surgery, the former Toulon lock might well be captain.
“My last year before retiring was 2011 and that was a bad year, with a very disappointing World Cup. Heyneke believes I can win another World Cup this year and there are very talented players in South Africa at the moment.
“Heyneke is pushing for us all to be kept fresh through SuperRugby, so hopefully there aren’t too many injuries. If we want to win, then we need all our best players there,” Matfield said.
Matfield has precious experience and his lineout skills are still invaluable. It may seem preposterous, but one of the Springboks best players in the 2015 World Cup could well be Matfield, as it was in Paris in 2007.