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Matfield and Springboks roll back the years

June 6, 2014

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) — Heyneke Meyer is intent on reviving international careers and some of the winning spirit of 2007 as the South Africa coach plans for the Rugby World Cup next year.

Meyer has reunited veteran locks and 2007 World Cup winners Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha for Saturday’s season-opener against a World XV led by former Australia flyhalf Matt Giteau. He also recalled flanker Schalk Burger, another member of the victorious Springboks team in France seven years ago, as one of his reserves after a three-year international absence.

Scrumhalf Fourie du Preez is a squad regular again after seemingly slipping into international retirement in Japan, and if Meyer had his way two other 2007 world champions who weren’t in contention 12 months ago would be in his plans: Center Jaque Fourie was ruled out with injury and flanker Juan Smith asked not to be considered as he focuses on his return to rugby with French club Toulon after an injury initially forced him into retirement last year.

The selections of the 37-year-old Matfield, 34-year-old Botha and 31-year-old Burger for a non-cap game against an all-star team at Newlands are directly related to the rugby showpiece next year in England, and Meyer’s intent to possibly use that experience to unseat New Zealand as world champion and the undisputed best team in the world.

“If you have the goods and can perform at world-class level, you deserve to be selected,” Meyer said. For Meyer, “age should not be any measure when it comes to test rugby.”

It’s a mantra he appears to have inherited from former Springboks coaches who relied heavily on grizzled veterans.

Matfield’s recall to his old No. 5 jersey after playing the last of his 110 tests in the quarterfinals of the 2011 World Cup is the biggest sign of Meyer being ready to go with aging but vastly experienced players for the next World Cup — where his tenure in charge of the Boks will be judged.

Matfield will also captain South Africa in three June tests following the World XV game, a temporary measure in the absence of injured regular skipper Jean de Villiers. His return to the second row and the heart of the forward pack and lineout is of more interest to see whether he has enough left to make the World Cup next year, when he will be 38.

Matfield said this week he was well aware his comeback — which began at the start of the Super Rugby season — would be “tested now.”

“If I did not think I could play in another World Cup and be part of a winning team, I would not be playing again,” Matfield said.

Early signs of his form with the Pretoria-based Bulls suggest he is still a viable option for the Springboks and the intense physicality of test rugby, as is Botha, a European Cup winner with Toulon last month.

“If anyone told me two years ago that Victor and Bakkies would play together again for the Boks, I probably wouldn’t have believed it,” Meyer said.

In fact, Matfield’s return was part of a deliberate plan Meyer hatched back in 2012 when he took over as Springboks coach and approached the great to reverse his decision to retire. It also worked with 32-year-old scrumhalf du Preez and may still work with Toulon loose forward Smith, also 32 and the latest World Cup winner Meyer has in mind for a return.

As it stands, 10 of Meyer’s 23-man matchday squad to play the World XV in South Africa’s first game of 2014 ran out in Paris and won the World Cup final in October 2007.

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Gerald Imray is on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GeraldImrayAP

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