The 35-year-old Ireland captain was singled out for praise by 37-year-old Matfield as “the best player I’ve played against” earlier in the week ahead of their clash in Dublin today, and the Munsterman was quick to repay the compliment.
They are very good at the back of the lineout and putting their centres and wingers into midfield, and putting teams under pressure that way
“I think he’s the best lineout forward in the world, and has been for a long time,” O’Connell said.
“To be able to take two years out, come back and be as good as, if not better than, he ever was is an incredible achievement.”
Matfield, who was part of South Africa’s Rugby World Cup-winning squad in 2007 and defeated the British and Irish Lions in 2009, retired from the sport after the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand, but was tempted back into a club and country return last year.
His return has bolstered the Springboks pack, which helped Heyneke Meyer’s side defeat the All Blacks 27-25 in the final round of the Rugby Championship last month, just the world champions’ second defeat since claiming the World Cup on home soil in 2011, but O’Connell warned that their love-in through the media this week would end when the two locks take to the field this afterrnoon.
“He still seems to be using pretty much the same system he has used for seven, eight, nine years, the same lineouts, and teams just can’t come near him on his ball,” O’Connell added.
“You see in that New Zealand the amount of lineouts that South Africa upset all across the board, not just Victor Matfield, but [number 8 Duane] Vermeulen as well.
“I think it contributed massively to the result: if you can’t be sure of your own ball when you go to the touch, to start plays or exit from your half of the pitch, it’s a really tough way to play the game.
“I think it’s probably something South Africa have been missing in recent years, and he’s brought it back with abundance.
“I was delighted with the compliment he gave me, but it’s all irrelevant come tomorrow afternoon.”
O’Connell, who has witnessed the rise of Ireland outside-half Johnny Sexton from the Leinster ranks, has also noticed a change in the way the Springboks attack from previous encounters and thinks they present an even bigger challenge than in recent years.
The more expansive game, which is quicker to bring in wingers like Bryan Habana and Blitzbokke star Cornal Hendricks or flying full-back Willie le Roux, has become even sharper since the arrival of 20-year-old Pollard, who this summer was captaining the South Africa U20 side in the Junior World Championship, where he was named player of the year, despite losing to England in the final.
“They are different in a better way, so many of the things they do I recognise from a few years ago,” O’Connell said.
“They still have an excellent maul, they score numerous tries from that. It’s very effective for them in terms of exiting as well.
“They are very good at the back of the lineout and putting their centres and wingers into midfield, and putting teams under pressure that way.
“So you recognise that from the past, and they are still strong there, but the way they’ve been playing with ball in hand recently, I just think they’ve an extra string to their bow that they maybe didn’t have when they won the World Cup, or they didn’t maybe use then or in 2009.
“So it makes the challenge even bigger again.”
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