Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - The durability of Akker van der Merwe will be put to a timely test when the low-centre-of-gravity Sharks hooker starts the high-stakes Super Rugby derby against the Bulls in Pretoria on Saturday (17:15).
Famously branded the “Angry Warthog” a year or two back by top pundit and former Springbok coach Nick Mallett for his scurrying running style, he was also more renowned as a near-specialist impact player until extremely recently.
The 26-year-old, educated at Outeniqua High School in George, in a rare phenomenon, ran out at the outset of the Sharks’ fixture against the Highlanders last weekend … and his rousing performance in the No 2 jersey, rather than more customary No 16, played a far from insignificant part in the thumping 38-12 win, their champagne performance of a profoundly bumpy season to that point.
Van der Merwe understandably retains the first-choice spot for the latest challenge, with Chiliboy Ralepelle confined to the splinters, against the Bulls - and immediately finds himself in a potential, positional “Springbok trial” against that rejuvenated past international Adriaan Strauss who has supposedly not ruled out a comeback from his Test-level retirement.
The horribly inconvenient, relatively long-term injury setback to Lions strongman Malcolm Marx means the SA hooker slot is in a state of considerable flux ahead of the June Tests.
A few weeks ago, Van der Merwe would have been rather lower in the pecking order, but another rousing showing as start-out man for the Sharks at Loftus - and against a quality direct foe - could set the cat among the pigeons, to his dramatic favour.
His big challenge in a match that is vital to both sides’ aspirations of making the Super Rugby knockout cut will be to convince the right people - like new Bok head coach Rassie Erasmus, especially-that he boasts the kind of stamina and application to be able to vault into starting contention for his country.
To a good extent over the last few seasons, he has inevitably been pigeon-holed largely as a “supersub”, whether in his Lions-based tenure or for good parts of his relatively new franchise employment in Durban.
Like it or not, that role has become pretty close to a specialist art-form in modern rugby, and legendary Bok lock Victor Matfield spiritedly reminded observers of that fact in SuperSport’s chat show First XV on Thursday.
Well qualified to discuss the hooking berth, given his key dovetailing with them during his years as the widely-lauded king of lineout play, Matfield said he suspected Van der Merwe, currently uncapped for the Boks, offered best value to the green-and-gold cause as a sub if called up.
In what was intended more as a compliment than criticism, he likened the player to someone like Ollie le Roux for crucial, late second-half value off the bench.
The barrelling Le Roux, who often found a certain Os du Randt an insurmountable obstacle to the No 1 jersey for South Africa, played as many as 43 of his 54 career Tests as an “impact” player and he certainly provided that hallmark a lot of the time.
He was a blistering ball-carrier, tough tackler and cleaner and was no slouch at scrum time, either, against a possibly tiring opposition pack.
Through no special fault of his own, Big Ollie simply became renowned as a supersub and that could simultaneously impede his challenge for the starting chore as loose-head prop.
Van der Merwe, often particularly in his element when a game has become looser, has spent a long time at first-class level almost accidentally cultivating a reputation as an off-the-bench factor.
But the square-jawed, 1.78m and 108kg individual also possesses attributes that could help slowly sway critics’ thinking of the type - or more specifically duration - of value he offers.
Another suitably lively “long shift” against the Bulls on Saturday, where he must hope coach Robert du Preez gives him 60-70 minutes at least, would help Van der Merwe increasingly quell the notion that he is best suited to a double-digit number on his back …
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