Matfield's withdrawal further depletes Springbok squad

Chris Hewett
Wednesday 30 October 2002 01:00

Rugby's version of the law of diminishing returns goes something like this: more international matches in the calendar means fewer top players on the pitch. Twenty-four hours after New Zealand had named a dozen uncapped tourists in their 26-man party for the forthcoming trip to Europe, the Springboks, already weakened by injury, announced the loss of Victor Matfield, the Blue Bulls lock whose wonderful form over recent weeks marked him out as one of the few southern hemisphere second-rowers capable of mixing it with Martin Johnson and living to tell the tale.

Matfield is suffering from an ankle condition. That he managed to play four Currie Cup matches, including a high-impact final, after suffering the injury provides a fairly strong clue as to where his immediate priorities lay. "We could have taken him along, but we would have had to nurse him through the tour," said Rudi Straeuli, the Springbok coach. "We'd sooner have him fully fit for next year's Super 12 and Test series."

The Boks are likely to run one of two lesser lights – Bakkies Botha or Marco Wentzel – against France on Saturday week, and, by extension, against Scotland at Murrayfield and England at Twickenham over the following fortnight. However, Natal's versatile back-five forward, A J Venter, will challenge for Matfield's shirt, having been called into the squad at the last minute.

One way or another, the northern hemisphere's autumn Test programme has been diluted by a southern hemisphere mixture of injuries, lay-offs, holidays and selectorial experimentation. The All Blacks are heading for these shores without a single member of their first-choice pack, while the South Africans have included eight uncapped players in their 26. Australia, the world champions, are far closer to full strength, but they have a much smaller pool of candidates from which to choose.

England, for one, are keeping mum about all this: they are hardly in a position to preach, given the standard of the cannon-fodder they sent across the equator four years ago. The Celts will not be protesting either, in light of their desperate need for a victory of any kind over a major southern hemisphere outfit. But the International Rugby Board, authors of a tour schedule now close to collapse, is deeply worried about the growing obsession with World Cup preparation at the expense of other Test commitments. Delegates will discuss the issue at their meeting in Dublin next month.

One world figure who is planning a Test appearance in the coming days is Keith Wood, the Harlequins and Lions hooker. He has not played since Ireland's World Cup qualifying victory over Russia in Krasnoyarsk over a month ago, but is back in the national squad for the meeting with Australia at Lansdowne Road on Saturday week, and as captain too. The Irish selectors have also recalled Victor Costello, the Leinster No 8.

Wales, who play an improving Romania at Wrexham on Friday night, have pulled the Cardiff hooker Andrew Lewis into their party as cover for the injured Robbie McBryde.

If the latter succumbs to ankle problems, the excellent Mefin Davies of Pontypridd is likely to start, with Lewis on the bench.

Three internationals – Budge Pountney and Mattie Stewart of Northampton, and Thomas Lievremont of Biarritz – have been cleared of various forms of skullduggery during a Heineken Cup match between the clubs on 19 October and are free to play this weekend.

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