Paul O’Connell was a passionate, fearless and formidable rugby player and his exploits with Munster, Ireland and the British & Irish Lions were known worldwide.
The Limerick man enjoyed a 15-year career during which he grew into one of the best second-rows in the world as well as one of the most respected leaders in the game.
Given his formidable presence on the pitch, you would doubt that any player would strike fear into O’Connell but as he admitted in his 2016 autobiography ‘The Battle‘, there was one second-row opponent who the Munster man was always wary of.
Victor Matfield is widely regarded as one of the best locks to ever play the game and he has the honours to back it up, a Rugby World Cup medal from 2007, three Super Rugby titles under his belt and a series win against the Lions in 2009.
He was renowned for his ability to steal the opposition’s lineout and no team was immune.
That was until Paul O’Connell and Ireland’s forward coach Gert Smal came up with an ingenious method to turn the tables on Matfield.
After Ireland’s victory over the Springboks in the 2009 Autumn Internationals, it emerged that Smal had taught O’Connell some numbers in Afrikaans, leading the methodical Munster captain to study the South African lineout as he descibred in his autobiography.
“I try not to fear any opponent but any international second-row will tell you that Victor Matfield has the ability to destroy your lineout”, O’Connell explained.
“I had downloaded an Afrikaans counting class from YouTube. The Springboks had the same lineout calls for years on end.
“In the video room I had listened to Matfield’s call on the ref mic and then tried to guess where the ball was going. By the end of the week I was able to look at a sequence of around a hundred of their lineouts and know where each one was going, based on the call”.
And so the dogged O’Connell put his research and findings into practice against the imposing Matfield.
“It worked. There were a few lineouts where, after Matfield had made the call, we were lined up defensively before they even got to where they were supposed to be.
“Their lineout had been the bedrock of their success for years. They cleared their lines excellently, they scored tries off their drive. They drew a lot of penalties and their box-kicking game off lineout drives was incredibly effective. Attacking that meant we were hitting them at their strongest point.
“In the second half, they started calling lineouts in a huddle, but we still got after a few of their balls.”
Ireland emerged as victors that day on a scoreline of 15-10 but despite that being Paul O’Connell’s best performance against Matfield, as he himself described it, the South African still made quite a nuisance of himself in Croke Park.
“They stole a few of ours, too. On the opposition’s throw, Matfield moves around the lineout a lot, with pace. He upsets the caller and the thrower.
“No matter how good a day I had against Matfield – and that was the best one – I was never 100 percent on our ball.
“He told the media that Gert Smal was man of the match in that game. It was a fair point.”