Matfield bidding to finish stay at Saints with a flourish

Victor Matfield is set to make his final Saints appearance on Saturday (picture: Sharon Lucey)

Victor Matfield is set to make his final Saints appearance on Saturday (picture: Sharon Lucey)

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“I wanted to come here and make a difference and maybe in a vital game I can do something well.”

Those were the words of Victor Matfield when he sat down for an interview with this publication back in February.

The South Africa legend knew his time at Saints hadn’t quite panned out how he and the club would have wanted.

He mentioned a lack of momentum, inspired by being unable to cement a regular starting spot due to his advancing years and need to rest rather than playing every week.

And he expressed that desperation to do something good that the Saints supporters could remember him by.

He didn’t want it to be seen as though he was treating Franklin’s Gardens as a retirement home.

Matfield made a big impact against Bath

Matfield made a big impact against Bath

But with Saints failing to make the play-offs for the first time since 2009 and Matfield unable to get a start in the Champions Cup quarter-final at Saracens, time was ticking down as he sought to make the difference he spoke of in February.

It looked like he would head home without claiming the plaudits he was so used to earning during a glittering career that encompassed a World Cup triumph and three Super Rugby titles.

But, last Saturday, Matfield finally got to leave an indellible footprint on the Gardens turf.

He may not have scored a try or made a last-ditch tackle to stop a certain score, but the lineout he pinched in the final minute of the game against Bath could prove so precious for Saints.

Had the men in blue and white have got their hands on the ball they could have mounted one last attack in the bid to overcome a 15-14 deficit.

But Matfield rose majestically to pouch it, finishing a crucial cameo from the bench with a flourish.

His experience was so vital in the closing stages of an encounter in which Saints had battled back from 14-0 down to earn a win that kept them in the top six.

And director of rugby Jim Mallinder said: “He had one of his best games for the club.

“He was a cool head, calling the lineout and appearing in the right place at the right time.

“In terms of that attack, he got round the corner, carrying hard and we’re really pleased with what he did.”

And Matfield certainly enjoyed being able to do something positive in his final appearance at Franklin’s Gardens.

“I must say it was fantastic,” said the lock, who will celebrate his 39th birthday on Wednesday. “I felt I made a little difference at the end, even if it’s just to help the guys stay in the Champions Cup.

“The pressure was on, but that’s why you play this game.

“You wait for big games and big moments to make a difference and it was nice to do that at the end.”

Matfield made his Saints debut against Gloucester back in November and he will now look to finish on a high against the same side at Kingsholm on Saturday.

So just how will the most-capped Springbok of all time reflect on his stay at the Gardens?

“I am glad I came here,” he said.

“I have really enjoyed my time at the Saints and I’m glad I was able to do something positive last weekend.

“I’ve made some good friends here and hopefully some of them will come over to South Africa to play for their country and I can show them what South Africa is about as well.”

Matfield came close to joining Saints from Toulon back in 2008, but the move never materialised.

So does he wish he had arrived in England sooner?

“If I’d have come over here I probably wouldn’t have played more than 100 Tests for South Africa,” Matfield said.

“I’ve had a fantastic career with South Africa, but I’m just glad I came over last year and saw something different.

“I’ve seen how the people are, seen sold-out stadiums every week and it’s just fantastic. Really, really great.”

It is clear from listening to Matfield just how much the support of the Saints fans has meant to him.

He may not have had the kind of impact he would have wanted, but he has relished playing in front of the Franklin’s Gardens faithful.

“I’m used to very good fans back home in South Africa but the thing I’ve noticed about the Northampton fans is how loyal they are,” Matfield said.

“It doesn’t matter whether it’s going well or if you lose one or two games, they’re here, they get behind the guys and they pick you up. Everywhere I’ve been in the area, everyone is just so positive.

“They’ve welcomed me with open arms, I’ve really enjoyed my time here and the fans are just fantastic.”

Another set of people Matfield has been impressed by is the crop of young players at Saints.

And he said: “It starts up front with a guy like Hilly (Paul Hill), who is still only very young but is already playing for England.

“Then you’ve got Mike Haywood, who has been outstanding with Dylan (Hartley) being injured.

“He is really playing well.

“I think Teimana Harrison has been a real stand-out for everyone.

“He carries over the advantage line and he just brings so much to the team.

“The other guy is Harry Mallinder, who plays well at 15 and he’s really a special player.

“He’s got fantastic hands and he’s competing with Luther (Burrell) and the other guys for a centre spot.”

While the likes of Harrison and Haywood can look forward to many more appearances in Saints colours, just one remains for Matfield.

After Saturday’s game at Gloucester, the lofty lock will head back home.

And when asked what his future holds, he smiles and says: “I’m done playing for one.

“I’ll wait and see but for six months I’ll probably just go back home, have a little break and see where I go from there.”