ONCE a Cheetah and now a Bull, Phillip Rudolph van der Merwe – Flip as he is known – is all respect and admiration when he talks about Scotland and the challenge they will pose his Springboks this afternoon.
Flip says the same as the other South Africans under Heyneke Meyer’s control. Scotland will be formidable at the breakdown and dangerous in the lineout. This has been their mantra all week. Remember Nelspruit when the Scots won the battle on the floor and almost won the Test. Almost. That was last summer. This is now, a November afternoon in Edinburgh with Van der Merwe preaching the gospel of the collision zone.
He has disciples along with him. Bakkies Botha alongside in the second row. Francois Louw of Bath at blindside flanker. The Shark – or the Hulk to give his nickname, Willem Alberts, if passed fit, on the openside flank. Duane Vermeulen of the Stormers at No.8. This is the heaviest-hitting back row that South Africa can muster, the threesome that took on the All Blacks in that extraordinary Test early last month, a Test that was ultimately lost but one where the lead changed hands seven times before the All Blacks pulled away to win by five tries to four and by 38-27.
Where are these Springboks at? Number two in the world, that’s where. Probably as far ahead of numbers three, four and five as they are behind number one, New Zealand. They’ve lost the last four to the All Blacks, lost eight of the last nine. The only team to beat the Boks in a run of 15 games stretching back 14 months are the Kiwis.
For the South Africans, there is infinite pain in that, but no disgrace. Right now, rugby is having a conversation about where Steve Hansen’s side rates in the history of the game. They are that good. And South Africa are that driven to try and catch up.
That process continues this afternoon. Van der Merwe says he is expecting an almighty battle at the breakdown today and it’s not just talk. The South Africans have selected a back five in the scrum that could scarcely be bigger. Botha returns after a two-year absence during which, he says, he never once got out of bed in his home from home in Toulon without thinking first that one day he would be back in the Springbok jersey. A huge day for a huge man – and for the 28-year-old beside him in the middle of the South African pack.
“The Enforcer,” is how Van der Merwe describes Botha.
“I’m looking forward to having him back next to me, looking forward to having him back in the green and gold,” he says. “He’s had a two-year absence and you can see that he missed it. He’s embracing it and he’s in the form of his life. It’s going to be fun seeing him running on to Murrayfield and hitting a few rucks.
“Bakkies is, how can I say it in English, he’s experienced. No, it’s more like a presence. He’s got a presence. When you walk into the room you know he’s there. Sitting down at the dinner table he always has people sit around him, like Eben [Etzebeth, the colossal 21-year-old lock from Western Province] and Pieter-Steph [du Toit, the fast-emerging Natal Shark, also a lock and also 21]. Bakkies started at 22 [he’s now 34], so he was about the same age as they are when he was in the team and they are learning from him. The whole team is learning from him. To see a guy like him running at the front and doing all the hard work, it’s really good. I grew up idolising Bakkies and Victor [Matfield].”
Back home there have been cries for Etzebeth and Du Toit to start in the second-row, or Botha and Etzebeth or Botha and Du Toit. Van der Merwe is respected but criticised a lot, criticised for his penchant for giving away penalties, mostly. It is said he is only keeping the jersey warm for the young guns and if he has heard such talk – and he could hardly have avoided hearing it – then it’s only going to make him a more ferocious animal.
Meyer sees the bigger picture. He needs Van der Merwe in there because he reads the lineouts better than anybody. He is a student of this stuff. South Africa have struggled to fill the giant crater that was left behind when Matfield retired, part of the chasm being in the Springboks’ lack of a leader in their lineout, a tactical thinker, a numbers man. That’s Van der Merwe’s job. He says he has been spending long hours analysing the Scottish lineout. He’s impressed, but he’s got a plan. “You’ll see on Sunday. Calling the lineouts is an opportunity and it’s something I can exploit. You know, sometimes playing rugby and getting on the ball and running can get a little boring, so there’s planning involved as part of the decision-making group and I like that. Lineouts fascinate me. How they work and how you can manipulate play by having the correct calls in the right places on the field.”
This will be his fourth shot at Scotland, the first being in 2010 at Murrayfield when he came on a substitute. “Not very good memories. They upset our Grand Slam tour but, yeah, we came back last year and in Nelspruit in the summer as well and rectified it. The 2010 match, that’s what could happen. We had a star-studded line-up there and we lost, so if you’re not up for it then you’re going to get a hiding. Did Scotland have more hunger? It could have been just that. It was a long time ago and a lot of rugby has been played since but that is what happens when you don’t prepare well and don’t pitch up on the day. We can lose to any side.”
They’ve picked a pack to beat up Scotland who have a pack that can hold their own. Whatever else this Test is going to be, you know it’s going to be physicality to the point of brutality.