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Brendan Gallagher: It’s farewell to Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield. Yes, really!

Bakkies Botha and Victor MatfieldFor those of you suffering post World Cup cold turkey the Pumas are back at Twickenham on Saturday against one of the more attack- minded Barbarians teams in recent years and it would be a major surprise if the Killick Cup match didn’t serve up a treat or two

As the centre piece of the Barbarians 125th anniversary – there is a huge Festive lunch beforehand – the  onus is very much on the world’s best known invitation team to produce a flat out performance while the Pumas seem to know only one way of playing these days and that is with their foot hard down on the accelerator

Before considering the dashers and runners, however, we should first pause for a hat-tip to the Barbarians venerable second row pairing of Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha who are making positively their final competitive appearance together. This comes after a world record 63 Test match appearances in tandem and well over 100 games together for Northern Transvaal and the Blue Bulls.

Matfield will play out his final season with Saints while Botha is ‘retired’ already and running his game farm in Northern Transvaal, so the Barbarians have taken the sensible precaution of having Lood de Jager on hand to spell the big man when he finally runs out of steam. But for most of the first half at least the old firm will look to go to work against Argentina’s clutch of outstanding young locks all of whom will be present and correct.

“This will be the last time we play together properly,” said Matfield. “I suppose there might be a golden oldies game in the future. Some might say we’re golden oldies already. I haven’t seen Bakkies much recently and I don’t know how fit he is but it doesn’t matter how many minutes he plays for, they’ll know he’s been on the pitch. It’ll be great to spend time with him and have some fun on the park.

“The thing with the Barbarians is that it’s about going back to why we started playing the game and why we love it. It’s about expressing yourself on the pitch and doing it with your mates. These days in the professional era you don’t get the chance to mingle but with the Barbarians you play with very good players who you’re normally playing against and it’s an amazing experience. Every time I’ve been involved it’s been unbelievable. If you’re going to the game, if you’ve seen the players involved, you know you can expect to see some great rugby.”

Elsewhere the Barbarians are stacked with more attackers than is decent. Wing Nehe Milner Skudder made more breaks and metres than anybody at the World Cup while we saw enough tantalising glimpses of Fiji’s Nemani Nadolo to appreciate that he is a special talent.

Waisake Naholo, top try scorer in last season’s Super Rugby tournament with 13,  recovered from a broken leg using traditional Fijian medicine to take his place in New Zealand’s World Cup winning squad while another back of Fijian extraction – centre Tevita Kuridrani – enjoyed a fine World Cup for Australia. New Zealand half-backs Lima Sopoaga and Tawerea Kerr Barlow would be automatic starters for most Test teams while look out also for Joe Tomane, Ryan Crotty and Pat Lambie.

The Pumas have been hit by the withdrawals of skipper Gus Creevy, Joaquin Tuculet and Juan Martin Hernandez who have all failed to recover from the injuries they picked up in the latter stages of the World Cup but their growing strength in depth has underpinned their recent improvement and Nicolas Sanchez and Santiago Cordero will still be here to direct affairs behind the scrum

It seems like only yesterday that the Pumas were entertaining us royally at the World Cup and although it’s a quick turnaround with just a week or two on the beach all their players are used to life on the road, and those few who aren’t soon will be.

The Argentina squad to a man are all signed up for their Super Rugby Franchise – the Jaguars – which will kick off that exciting project at the end of February when they travel to play first the Cheethas on February 26 and then the Sharks a week later.

They then return for a recovery week off and a two week block of home matches before they go to New Zealand for four games before returning home again. And so on.  It’s going to be a long season but at last it provides the basis for a professional home base franchise for Argentinian rugby fans to get behind.

If it all goes reasonably well they will create their own momentum but if they encounter tough times they will have to dig deep. Mind you, Argentinian rugby has shown itself willing and able to do that.

*Tickets to Barbarians v Argentina at Twickenham cost from £30 (adults) and £15 (children) from www.ticketmaster.co.uk

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