Fortune to smile at last on Flip?

    2015-04-08 12:11

    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 on Thursday.

    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 overseas task.

    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 interim.

    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 the tournament.

    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.

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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