Victor Matfield: How to win a Rugby World Cup
by Victor Matfield
With the seventh edition of Rugby World Cup only nine months away, we find out from South Africa's veteran second row Victor Matfield just what it takes to lift the Webb Ellis Cup.
Victory in a Rugby World Cup Final is the pinnacle of any player’s career and looking back at South Africa’s journey to lifting the trophy in 2007, I would say it all really began in 2004 when Jake White was appointed coach and he brought together the players who formed the nucleus of the squad that was ultimately successful in France.
We had a terrible World Cup in 2003 but when Jake came in, we talked about the style of play we wanted to adopt and how we could move forward. It was a decision taken between the players and the coaching staff and that democratic process ensured everyone was on board. Jake made it clear he believed in us as a group of players and we respected his trust. It meant that by the time the World Cup arrived, we were an experienced, tight-knit group.
Of course, it wasn’t all plain sailing. We struggled in 2006 in particular, losing five Tests on the bounce at one stage, but with hindsight it was a blessing. You often find out more about yourself as a team in adversity than you do when things are going well and that poor run of results collectively forced us to sit down and identify what we were doing wrong.
We came to the conclusion it was a case of minor alterations rather than major surgery. We realised more accuracy and patience were required and as the World Cup got closer we put the lessons into practice.
Even though a World Cup is a long tournament, you do all the hard work before the competition begins or a ball is kicked. We were in training camps during 2006 doing plenty of conditioning work simply because there was no time in 2007. For South African players, it was Super Rugby, then the Tri Nations and then the World Cup was upon us, so by the time we touched down in France, all the serious physical conditioning was behind us and training sessions were all about fine tuning and refining our structures.
Freedom key to success
Reaching the final meant we were away from home for seven weeks but boredom and homesickness were not a factor. We had our families with us for long periods during the tournament and we had a lot of freedom in terms of going out and sightseeing in Paris. I think that was hugely important because it kept spirits high in the squad.
It is always important to be able to switch off from rugby, to get away from it all, but it’s even more important in the pressurised environment of a World Cup and in that respect France were the perfect hosts. The country has a long, proud rugby tradition but we were still able to walk the streets with our families or rent a car for the day and not get mobbed by people asking for autographs.
Behind the scenes, the role of the coach and the captain were crucial. Jake was under huge pressure going into the tournament and he did get stressed at times but he kept a lid on it. He also got a lot of support from the rest of the coaching team and the likes of Eddie Jones, who had been there and done that before in 2003, and I think that was another big factor in our success.
As was John Smit. Supporters only see the captain on the pitch for the 80 minutes but I’d have to say what happens on the pitch is only 10 percent of the job a good captain does, especially when a group of players are away together at a tournament for a long period.
The captain sets the tone for everything, from the team meetings to training sessions. He’s ultimately responsible for the atmosphere in the camp and John was superb in France. He struck the perfect balance between keeping everyone focused and making sure we stayed relaxed. Of course, he’s world class out on the pitch but what he contributed off it in 2007 was absolutely critical.
There were more than one or two rows and disagreements within the squad in 2007 though. Some might see that as a sign of disunity or low morale, but I thought it was a positive because it’s always better to get something off your chest and move on rather than let it fester and ultimately affect team spirit.
It’s inevitable when you’ve got 30 players and a coaching staff of 20 together for seven weeks that tempers will flare when there’s a clash of heads in training or if a big tackle comes in unexpectedly. People won’t always see eye to eye but it doesn’t need to be a problem. Players had their say when they weren’t happy and we moved on as a squad.
Experience and togetherness
Looking back at the final in Paris, it was as close and tough as we expected and I think what got us through against England was our experience and sense of togetherness. We had been building up to that game for three years, so all the trials and tribulations we experienced on the way ultimately pulled us through.
We had hammered England in the group stages but there was definitely no sense of complacency ahead of the final. England were poor in the first game but when they beat Australia in the quarter finals and then France in the semi final, we were under no illusions that they had turned things around. English teams are always physically challenging and that side was no different but we stayed patient, stuck to our game plan and got over the line.
New Zealand host the 2011 World Cup and we know it will be incredibly difficult to defend our title. No country has yet won back to back World Cups, so we could make history but, as champions, we are also there to be shot at.
I’ve not doubt New Zealand will do a fantastic job of staging the tournament but I think it will be a different dynamic. It’s a smaller country than France and rugby is the number one sport, so it will be harder to escape during the competition. As I said, we were able to wander the streets of Paris in relative anonymity in 2007 but I can’t see that being the case in New Zealand because people are absolutely crazy about their rugby over there.
I think we will have to make a conscious effort to arrange more activities and get out of the cities so the squad can unwind, forget about rugby for a day or two and refresh minds and bodies.
No favourites for World Cup
Our form going into the tournament has not been great and our performances in the 2010 Tri Nations were disappointing but I’m still confident we are capable of lifting the trophy. Our recent results have not been part of the grand plan but the way we struggled in 2010 reminds me of the team’s problems in 2006 and we showed then that it is possible to turn the ship around.
We have to be brutally honest about what has gone wrong and not be afraid to change things. It worked for us four years ago and I don’t believe there is currently any shortage of talent in South African rugby.
The fact the Bulls and the Stormers contested an all-South Africa final in Super Rugby in 2010 tells its own story and there are young players on the domestic scene who are keeping the older, more experienced players on their toes.
We know we have no divine right to lift the World Cup again but we definitely won’t come up short in terms of preparation or commitment. We will probably be one of the most experienced squads in New Zealand and when it comes down to tournament rugby, that’s a huge asset.
At this stage, I really don’t think there is a favourite for the trophy. Previous tournaments have proved that form and reputation can often count for little and I’m sure it will be the same in New Zealand.
Taken from the IRB World Rugby Yearbook 2011 - Click here to buy your copy >>