The long wait to become a fully-fledged Springbok is probably over for Franco van der Merwe, the Lions stalwart, who was named on the bench for South Africa's decisive Rugby Championship match against New Zealand at Ellis Park on Saturday. By KEN BORLAND.
The 30-year-old Van der Merwe has been a member of the extended Springbok squad for the last 18 months, and went on the tour to the United Kingdom at the end of last year, without ever actually taking the field and being allowed to wear the Green and Gold blazer.
But the suspension of Flip van der Merwe has provided the opening and, judging by coach Heyneke Meyer’s comments on Wednesday, Franco van der Merwe is likely to replace the starting number five, Juandre Kruger, later in the Ellis Park showdown on Saturday.
“It’s very emotional telling a player he’s going to play in his first Test and it was very special to be able to tell Franco that,” Meyer said. “He’s been around the squad for a year-and-a-half but hasn’t even been allowed to wear the Springbok blazer because of tradition.
“Even when I told him I wanted him to play Currie Cup because I wanted Pieter-Steph du Toit to learn with the squad, Franco was still very positive. It’s great that his first Test is now against the All Blacks at Ellis Park, it’s why I believe in fairytale endings,” Meyer said.
But the Springbok coach stressed that Van der Merwe had certainly not been chosen based on sentiment. The Lions lock, who played on loan for the Sharks in this year’s SuperRugby tournament, has distinguished himself as a lineout organiser and jumper, and he has a work-rate befitting a player who has also turned out at flank.
“Franco knows how to run a lineout and you need an experienced guy there. If he comes on after 50 minutes, he can make a great impact, as could Pieter-Steph. But if we lose Juandre Kruger early on, then you need that experience.
“Franco has been playing well, he was man of the match in the Currie Cup the other day and he’s been great in training,” Meyer said.
The ever-smiling man from Hartswater in the Northern Cape can be forgiven for pinching himself because, after several near misses, he is set to make his debut on his home ground in the biggest match of the year.
“I’m super-excited, I can’t wait. At times it did get tough and I had to try and stay positive. But the coach is a man of his word because he said a long time ago that I would get my chance. And now I think it’s the best possible outcome, my dream since I was a boy – playing against the All Blacks at Ellis Park on my home ground and it’s going to be like a final. My passion for the game has finally been rewarded,” Van der Merwe said.
The change in the second row is one of two in the pack made by Meyer, with Bismarck du Plessis returning as the starting hooker and swapping with Adriaan Strauss, who is on the bench.
Du Plessis has styled himself as an all-action, wrecking-ball type player who thrives on physical confrontation and Meyer said he wanted the rambunctious hooker to be himself, despite how it all ended in tears when these two teams last met in Auckland three weeks ago.
“I only want Bismarck to be Bismarck. He’s very physical, great in the scrums, he’s a great leader and he gets the team up,” Meyer said.
There is little doubt that Du Plessis at his best is a bit like a superhero amongst mere mortals and, while he was on the field at Eden Park, the Springboks were a different side and looked to be getting the measure of the All Blacks. Apart from his capabilities in the set-pieces, the Sharks hooker is also an immense presence in the collisions and a skilful operator at the breakdown, often snatching ball off the opposition thanks to his brute strength.
Meyer said centre JJ Engelbrecht was still rated a 50/50 chance of playing due to the bad knock to the thigh muscle he suffered against the Wallabies, and young Jan Serfontein will be called up if the lanky 24-year-old does not recover in time.
While Engelbrecht has improved steadily through the season, especially defensively, his absence will provide the 20-year-old Serfontein with the ideal opportunity to show he is up to rugby at the highest level.
The other highlight of Wednesday’s team announcement is that loosehead prop Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira will pick up his 50th capon Saturday.
While the milestone is a just reward for one of the most likeable members of the Springbok squad, one should not forget that Mtawarira has been in tremendous form, shining in a top-class front row who have now all earned their 50th caps this year.
“The whole front row has reached 50 caps now in the same season, which is very special. I really enjoy playing with Bismarck and Jannie, and Bissie whispered in my ear this week that because it was my 50th, he expected nothing short of my absolute best on Saturday,” Mtawarira said.
Having overcome a heart complaint that kept him out of the United Kingdom tour at the end of last year, Mtawarira has shown a tremendous resolve and determination to return to the highest level.
“I was always positive, that sort of thing makes you stronger for the future, and winning 50 caps was definitely one of my goals. It’s important to aspire to things and now that I’ve achieved 50 caps, I want to go past that and reach a hundred,” Mtawarira said.
It was the same resolve the Beast showed as a youngster when he would cycle to the Sharks Academy from Morningside for training. It was an easy enough trip down the hill to King’s Park, but a gruelling return up the ancient sand dunes after an intense workout.
Only a handful of Springbok props have played 50 Tests and Mtawarira joins Os du Randt, CJ van der Linde, Ollie le Roux and Jannie du Plessis in reaching the milestone.
The return of Richie McCaw is one of two changes to the New Zealand starting line-up and is obviously hugely significant given his impact as both a captain and player.
Tighthead prop Owen Franks has not recovered from a groin injury and has been replaced by the less experienced Charlie Faumuina, who will face the sternest of examinations against the Springbok front row.
Andrew Hore, in possibly the final Test of his lengthy career, will be the All Blacks’ starting hooker, but the absence of veteran Keven Mealamu on the bench, young Dane Coles being preferred, is a surprise. DM
South Africa: 15-Zane Kirchner, 14-Willie le Roux, 13-JJ Engelbrecht/Jan Serfontein, 12-Jean de Villiers, 11-Bryan Habana, 10-Morné Steyn, 9-Fourie du Preez, 8-Duane Vermeulen, 7-Willem Alberts, 6-Francois Louw, 5-Juandré Kruger, 4-Eben Etzebeth, 3-Jannie du Plessis, 2-Bismarck du Plessis, 1-Tendai Mtawarira. Substitutes – 16-Adriaan Strauss, 17-Gurthrö Steenkamp, 18-Coenie Oosthuizen, 19-Franco van der Merwe, 20-Siya Kolisi, 21-Ruan Pienaar, 22-Pat Lambie, 23-Jan Serfontein/Juan de Jongh.
New Zealand: 15-Israel Dagg, 14-Ben Smith, 13-Conrad Smith, 12-Ma’a Nonu, 11-Julian Savea, 10-Aaron Cruden, 9-Aaron Smith, 8-Kieran Read, 7-Richie McCaw, 6-Liam Messam, 5-Sam Whitelock, 4-Brodie Retallick, 3-Charlie Faumuina, 2-Andrew Hore, 1-Tony Woodcock. Substitutes – 16-Dane Coles, 17-Wyatt Crockett, 18-Ben Franks, 19-Steven Luatua, 20-Sam Cane, 21-Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 22-Beauden Barrett, 23-Charles Piutau.
Photo: South Africa Springboks’ Bryan Habana scores a try against New Zealand All Blacks during their Rugby Championship test match in Dunedin September 15, 2012. REUTERS/Anthony Phelps
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