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Sunday, 9 October 2011

Chalk and cheese

South African rugby lost a great player today, and a coach who I for one will not miss. Peter de Villiers has been a loose cannon and an embarrassment to his country's reputation for far too long. His disgraceful remarks following Schalk Burger's gouging of Luke Fitzgerald in 2009 marked him, for me, as the kind of person who should never be allowed near the sport I love. Anyone who saw the footage of Burger quite deliberately wrapping his hand over Fitzgerald's forehead and digging fingers into both eyes can be left in no doubt as to the intent of the man. Good riddance de Villiers.

Victor Matfield, a giant in every sense of the word, is another matter. I have been involved with rugby in one way or the other for 42 years. I've been fortunate enough to live through some of the greatest times rugby union worldwide has had, and to witness some fabulous players. I watched the great Welsh teams of the 70s, including the Pontypool front row, Merve the Swerve, Barry John, Gerald Davies, Benny and JPR. I witnessed the sheer beauty and brutal forward play of the French, with perhaps Jean-Pierre Rives the first to spring to mind. I saw Beaumont and Co. sweep all before them. More recently, there has been the appearance of that magnificent 'freak', Jonah Lomu.  I reserve the highest respect, though, for those players who showed that rare commodity to their opponents. Willie-John McBride was one such, Francois Pienaar another. John Eales is yet another. What separated these great players from the others was their perspective. I'm pretty sure that they would all acknowledge, and I say this with confidence because I've seen the way they acted toward their opponents, that rugby is the greatest game in the world, but it's just that, a game. From what I can see, Victor Matfield deserves to be included in this list of great sportsmen. Of course, he is much more than that. With John Smit (another player who is, it seems about to announce his retirement) throwing in, he has dominated the lofty regions of the lineout for years.  He, they, will be missed.

On the same subject, I'd like to thank Victor, John, Shane Williams and all the others who will slip from the international stage for all the entertainment they've given us over the years. Here's hoping they do a better job of guest summarising than Raging Heifer, Jonathan Davies, Eddie Butler and the rest of the dire pundits we've had to get used to over the last few years.

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