"Paul O'Connell was definitely my toughest opponent" - Victor Matfield
Victor Matfield was the master come lineout time, but one man pushed him to the limit each time they met.
If you are a Springboks fan, the names Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha go hand in hand. For Irish fans, the same goes for Donncha O'Callaghan and Paul O'Connell.
In November 2009, played out in front of 74,950 supporters at a mist-shrouded Croke Park, the four second rows took to the field for an epic encounter that was as gripping as the Lions Series that had played out in South Africa earlier that year.
Matfield was the lineout operator and pack leader for South Africa while Botha was the enforcer. The former Bulls and Springboks lock spoke about how himself and Botha complemented each other.
"Bakkies never wanted to do any homework on anything! When it came to a Wednesday before a game and someone asked him, ‘Listen Bakkies, what other games have you seen?’ He’d say, ‘I don’t know. Victor will tell me about it on Friday. Don’t worry’.
"So I had to do all the work; all the hard work. But it was great to have a guy like him there. Although he was this big, strong guy - especially in his earlier years - he was very mobile; he was quick. At lineout time, he could go very high as well. So it was great playing with him."
During his interview with Barry Murphy and Andrew Trimble on Baz & Andrew's House of Rugby, Matfield spoke about his four memorable clashes with O'Connell in 2009.
While O'Connell was Lions captain for the 2009 tour to South Africa, O'Callaghan had to settle for a dirt-trackers role as he played in midweek games and prepared the Test side for battle. He made the bench for the First Test but dropped out of the squad when veteran lock Simon Shaw leap-frogged Alun Wyn Jones for a starting berth.
For Springboks head coach Pieter De Villiers, he was never going to split up Botha and Matfield. O'Connell had led the Lions admirably, heading into the First Test in Durban, but the Springbok duo bristled when they heard talk of the Irishman being the new top dog.
"I remember going into that 2009 series," Matfield recalls. "I don’t know if it was [about] Paul O’Connell but one of their media guys. Before that Durban Test, he said, ‘Listen, maybe Victor and Bakkies are past their best and it’s time for this new Irish guy to come through’.
"I remember Bakkies and I just looked at that [report] and I just saw Bakkies laugh. And I knew, ‘Okay. Don’t say something like that to Bakkies Botha!’ Yeah, it was great to get him charged up as well."
Matfield and Botha had fine Tests, in Durban and Pretoria, and took an unassailable 2-0 lead into the final game, which the Lions won to give O'Connell his first Test victory for the tourists. Botha was suspended for that game after he was cited for an illegal clear-out on Adam Jones that resulted in the Welsh prop breaking his arm.
Four months after that series, O'Callaghan and O'Connell were restored to an Ireland team that had clinched a Six Nations Grand Slam in Cardiff that year. On this occasion, there was no way O'Connell was leaving the field without winning.
"I don’t have many great memories there," Matfield admits. "I haven’t won so many games against Ireland in Ireland.
"I’ve said it on many occasions, but Paul is probably the best player I played against in my position, especially when it came to lineouts. It also helped him a lot when [forwards coach] Gert Smal joined. I worked with Gert for four to six years and Gert knew exactly how I thought about the lineout and I believe he definitely shared that with Paul O’Connell. It was always very difficult to go up against him because he almost knew what I was thinking, especially when Gert was there.
"And he was also a guy that studied the game, and he studied the lineouts as well. I was going up against someone that was prepared, and a great guy off the field as well. Always had time for him afterwards. So, yeah, he was definitely my toughest opponent.
"I must say, my worst day of my career was going up against Ireland. I think it was 2009, after we had this great year where the Bulls won Super Rugby and the Currie Cup, we won the British & Irish Lions, beat New Zealand three times, won the Tri Nations back then. But we had this Test here and we came up against Ireland at this big stadium, and the mist was there. You couldn’t see; it was like a wall.
"And for the first time in my life, I lost like five lineout balls against Paul O’Connell. After that game, I didn’t want to go out of my room. I just wanted everyone to leave me. Because that has never happened to me before. But it was always good going up against him."
Ireland fell behind 10-3 in the Croke Park encounter but, inspired by O'Connell and with Johnny Sexton nailing penalties, they mounted a superb comeback to win 15-10.
Matfield, in his playing career, won 127 Test caps, was man-of-the-match in a World Cup final win over England in 2007, defeated the Lions in a Test Series and was twice nominated for World Player of the Year.
To hear the reverence with which he speaks about Paul O'Connell tells you all you need to know about the Munster legend.
CHECK OUT THAT FULL EPISODE HERE:
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Springboks legend Victor Matfield joins Baz and Andrew from South Africa for a very special House of Rugby episode. They re-live the 2009 Lions Series, battles with Paul O'Connell and a wild night in Monaco, six years later. Ulster & Ireland star Dr Claire McLaughlin joins the lads from Belfast to discuss working on the Covid-19 frontline.