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Joe McCarthy, another Bakkies Botha in the making?

Former Springbok captain Victor Matfield has been pleasantly surprised with the quality of the young Leinster lock’s performances

It will be one to chalk up as a new experience for Joe McCarthy. The imprimatur of iconic Springbok Victor Matfield does not come easy, even after the Leinster and Ireland secondrow’s displays ensured he broke into the public consciousness on a global scale.

The former 2007 World Cup-winning South African captain namechecked the Irish lock after an eye-catching Six Nations and expects that there will be more to come.

McCarthy worked his way into Irish coach Andy Farrell’s confidence, started in all of Ireland’s championship matches this year and has been a force of nature, something Matfield knows all about, having played alongside the confrontational Bakkies Botha for much of his career.

“I was really surprised by his [McCarthy] performances in the Six Nations, when they picked him ahead of some of the more experienced guys,” said Matfield, speaking ahead of both Munster and Leinster playing United Rugby Championship (URC) matches in South Africa over the next two weeks.


“He really stepped up. I thought he had a really good Six Nations. He’s a fantastic ball carrier. He is always in your face. If you go out on the park and you have that one guy at your back and everybody looks at him and says ‘uh do I want to take him on, or take a step back’. Then you are really on the front foot.”

If McCarthy is picked to tour in South Africa this July, he is likely to face World Cup-winning secondrow players over two Tests in Pretoria and Durban. The Springboks are still ranked first in the world and Ireland second, one place above the All Blacks. Matfield feels that a true test of McCarthy’s credentials will come when he lines out against South Africa on their own patch.

“That’s what we always had with Bakkies Botha playing with me,” he says of the latter. “Wherever we go, we knew what other guys were thinking when he was arriving at the ruck and the same with Eben [Etzebeth]. Eben has been fantastic for the Springboks, just being that enforcer.

“I mean we always talked about one guy getting stuck into a maul, just breaking up the whole maul. So, I think it’s very good for Ireland. It is going to interesting to see him over here in South Africa up against Eben, up against Snyman. That will be a good competition. But I think he will be very good for a long time to come.”

Matfield, who retired in 2016 after a season with Northampton Saints, confirmed in February that he will be working with Eddie Jones as a consultant with Japan. Following a poor run as the Wallabies head coach after he left England, Jones was unveiled as Jamie Joseph’s successor last December and takes charge of Japan for a second time.

South Africa’s most capped Springbok (127), Matfield has previously worked with the Bulls and Lions and helped Portugal prepare for the 2023 Rugby World Cup. As a player, he also had first-hand experience of Leinster defence coach Jacques Nienaber.

“I think firstly he must be the best defence coach in the world,” said Matfield. “But then also he knows how to win semi-finals and finals. He knows how to get through tough games and I think you’ll see that when you get to semi-finals, finals this year . . . we have already seen last week against La Rochelle, Leinster were just dominating. I think when they get to semi-finals and finals then they will know why they brought Jacques over.

“Him and Rassie [Erasmus]. I was playing for the Cats when Jacques was the physio and then he became the fitness coach. The two of them eat and sleep rugby. If you want to talk about anything he has been through it three or four times. He knows exactly how he wants to counter.

“So, it’s all about preparation then having a plan and backing your own plan. He is very confident in how he sees the game and what he believes in. So, when you get someone who is very confident in what he brings to a team . . . that will definitely help them. I have a lot of respect for Jacques.”

Matfield added that Leinster are almost unbeatable and next season they will be even stronger when Jordie Barrett arrives.

“Now you add Jordie Barrett, one of the stars of the All Blacks,” he says. “So, yeah that will make it more difficult for other teams and will probably just take Leinster even further ahead of everyone else.”

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times