Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Southern rivals press the alarm button

Victor Matfield. Photo / Getty Images
Victor Matfield. Photo / Getty Images

There is a whiff of desperation, panic even, coming out of South Africa and Australia.

The Boks are serious in their attempts to lure Victor Matfield out of retirement, while the Wallabies have made multiple changes to their wider coaching team and are now eyeing Kurtley Beale as their stand-in saviour at first five.

It's not that the All Blacks have any right to feel smug but their concerns about the flagging form of a handful of World Cup warriors pale in comparison with the situation facing their two key rivals.

The South Africans' desire to persuade Matfield to give up his fledgling commentating career and captain the Boks is hard to understand.

Comebacks in any field usually fail. The only man in recent history to successfully stop playing and then return to the international rugby arena was Raphael Ibanez. The French hooker is the exception, coming back after a two-year absence to lead the French to the 2007 World Cup semifinals.

Matfield is 34 and hasn't played since December. He's doing consultancy work with the Bulls and trains with them once a week - helping him stay reasonably fit. He says he's lost only 3kg since the World Cup.

But can he really retire and endure all the subsequent emotions that come with that, not play Super Rugby and then line up for the Boks in June? Even for an athlete of Matfield's standing that is extreme.

And really this is why it's puzzling: why would the Boks feel the need to take such a risk?

New coach Heyneke Meyer is close with Matfield and is reluctant to appoint a long-term captain until he's sure he's got the right man. John Smit held the role from 2004 to 2011 and Matfield stood in on occasions. Schalk Burger is seen by many as the long-term successor but the Stormers flanker is injured and doesn't have a return date.

The Boks also have a lack of experience at lock with Bakkies Botha in France, Danie Rossouw in Japan and Andries Bekker struggling with a back problem. But still, bringing Matfield back reeks of a lack of confidence in the aspiring group of locks and would-be leaders.

Why not just trust the rising talents of Eben Etzebeth and Rynhardt Elstadt, the Stormers locks? The in-form Jean de Villiers could surely captain the Boks in their three-test series against England in June and hold the job through to the Rugby Championship.

He could even be the man to retain for longer - experienced, assured and globally respected, he'd be a natural at the job.

"If it were not Heyneke asking me, I would not even consider it," Matfield has said by way of confirming he's giving the whole business serious consideration. Flirting with Matfield is a high-risk way for Meyer to begin his reign: perhaps it will be inspired, perhaps it will be disastrous, but most coaches would probably rather make a less volatile entry into test rugby.

The turbulence in Australia is just as intense. The Australian Rugby Union, to a certain extent, were unusually lenient with coach Robbie Deans between 2008 and 2011.

They could tolerate losing 11 from 14 against the All Blacks, as long as the Wallabies won the World Cup. When the All Blacks crushed Australia in the semifinals with a performance that was superior tactically, technically and psychologically, the scrutiny on Deans and his team had to be intense.

The head coach had already been signed through to 2013 but his assistants Jim Williams and Phil Blake were dumped and David Nucifora returned to his high performance role. Last week, the Wallabies unveiled former Munster coach Tony McGahan, former Wallaby prop Andrew Blades and Nick Scrivener as coaching assistants.

The set-up is now closer to the former All Black scenario under Graham Henry, with Deans assuming more of a director role with responsibility for the wider tactical approach and big picture vision.

That resemblance is deliberate - as the ARU have been big enough to accept that the All Blacks were surging ahead and that the Wallabies could be better served by emulating some of their great rival's set-up.

Imitation is always flattering but the fact the Wallabies are copying aspects of the All Blacks coaching framework is reactive rather than proactive.

Adding to their concerns is the chronic lack of grunt being displayed by any of their Super Rugby franchises, with not one able to scrum dominantly or look dynamic and ruthless at the breakdown.

Injuries to Quade Cooper and James O'Connor have left them without a play-maker and, for the first time in years, they look short of explosive and deadly talent on the wing.

None of this is terminal or likely to fool the All Blacks into taking them lightly.

But, right now at least, Steve Hansen has much less to worry about than either Meyer or Deans.

- Herald on Sunday

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