Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – He has been a bit of a forgotten man due to a
succession of injury setbacks, but Flip van der Merwe’s green light for fresh
activity comes at a convenient juncture both for the Bulls in Super Rugby and
his personal quest to crack a Springbok World Cup squad for the first time.
The big, physical lock – 118kg, 1.98m – is back in full
training for the Loftus-based franchise and will reportedly be considered for
selection for Saturday’s home clash with the Reds (19:10 kickoff) as the SA
conference-leading Bulls aim to return to winning ways in a hurry after their
last-gasp heartbreak at the hands of the Lions in Johannesburg.
Whether he is deemed in good enough condition for a start yet
remains to be seen; he has not played any competitive rugby this year while
recovering from a pectoral muscle injury picked up in pre-season gym training.
That, in turn, followed six months of prior inactivity after knee surgery.
A likelier bet, perhaps, is that he may find a place among
the substitutes, and then be cautiously introduced for 20 to 30 minutes in the
second half, although the match-day squad will only be revealed by Frans Ludeke
But entering the Super Rugby fray around the midway mark of
ordinary season, with the known strengths he can provide to the Bulls for the
run-in to the playoffs, is a major plus for the side.
His availability coincides with the revelation that their
most experienced second-rower Victor Matfield needs some three to four weeks
off for a cartilage clean-up operation: it suggests that the 37-year-old senior
statesman will only return in time for the overseas leg, unusually near the
very end of the Bulls’ ordinary-season roster.
After the Reds fixture, the Pretoria outfit play derbies
against the Sharks and Stormers (both away) and then the home return game
against the Lions before a useful bye immediately preceding the four-match
So it will probably be around that time, all going well,
that Matfield filters back into the campaign.
But getting their next most streetwise lock back in the form
of Van der Merwe is a genuine fillip – no pun intended, of course -- in the
Perhaps people forget, after all, that these days the brawny
29-year-old offers versatile credentials for either position in the second row,
which might allow to Bulls some license to rotate either of current
first-choices Jacques du Plessis and Grant Hattingh if they so wish.
More familiar and probably still better suited to the No 4
“grunt” job, Van der Merwe nevertheless operated with some success at five for
the Boks in 2013.
That jersey was his for all three matches, for example, in
the successful (all wins) three-match European end-of-year tour then: he
partnered Eben Etzebeth from there against France and Wales, and Bakkies Botha
(now internationally retired) against Scotland.
It was proof that on the often heavier, slower pitches of
the northern hemisphere, particularly, you can profitably field two slightly
less “athletic” locks, if you like, together.
The likeliest Bulls player under imminent threat through Van
der Merwe’s return is probably Du Plessis, who only really made the proper
conversion to No 4 from blindside flank this season and has made moderate
strides in the berth.
At times the Bulls have suffered some scrumming angst, and
there have been inevitable whispers that at least part of that snag may be down
to the still fairly raw, 21-year-old Du Plessis slowly having to familiarise
himself with requirements closer to the main heat of the engine room than he
has been used to in the past.
Here the 35 Test-cap Van der Merwe has infinitely greater
wisdom and presumably no lack of brute force.
With the Boks’ itinerary for 2015 beginning away to
Australia in a shortened Castle Rugby Championship in mid-July, Van der Merwe
has several weeks in which to reacclimatise to first-class rugby and stake
healthy claims simultaneously for a national berth.
He will be no less hell-bent on earning a passage to the
World Cup in England later in the year, as it would be his first experience of
Typically of the jinx that has tended to surround him, Van
der Merwe missed out on 2011 selection as he fractured several ribs a few weeks
short of the event.
Maybe the wheel of fortune is turning just a little more
kindly for him now, given the excellent timing of his comeback: he should not
fall too notably prey to over-use and associated fatigue ahead of the RWC.
There is also something of a talismanic aspect to Van der
Merwe’s Springbok appearances: they have only lost twice (each time to New
Zealand, surprise, surprise) in the last 17 matches he has either been a
starter or substitute in.
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