- 29 Sep 2017
Marcel van der Merwe’s first season at Toulon was a chaotic one for the club, writes GAVIN MORTIMER.
We’ve all heard of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Well, there was a variation on that theme at Toulon last season: call it Boudjellal and the Three Coaches.
The Toulon president, a law unto himself at the best of times, went through a trio of head coaches (see sidebar on pg 112) in his pursuit of success. Alas, there was no happy ending: for the second consecutive season Toulon failed to trouble their trophy cabinet. For a club that likes to think of itself as the Real Madrid of European rugby, it’s a troubling fact.
The pressure, therefore, has never been greater on the squad than this season, but one man taking it all in his stride is Marcel van der Merwe, the 26-year-old former Cheetahs and Bulls tighthead.
‘We know we have to perform, but I’m comfortable with that,’ says Van der Merwe, in the second season of a two-year deal with Toulon. ‘It’s our job to perform and I enjoy the pressure that comes with that.’
Van der Merwe admits that last season was a rollercoaster ride, personally and collectively, yet the cliche about ‘every cloud has a silver lining’ is true in the case of Toulon.
‘I’ll be honest,’ he says with a laugh, ‘at times last season I didn’t know what the hell was going on. I’d just arrived at the club, but luckily I had Juan [Smith] to help me and he said, “Just keep your head down, it will blow over. These things happen in French rugby.” It was good advice. I learned to adapt and go with it. We all did. I think it’s testimony to the strength of the players that we ignored the external factors and stuck together. It solidified relationships and made the squad stronger, and while it’s too early to tell, I’d like to think we can carry that unity into this season.’
There’s been a raft of changes at Toulon between seasons: Smith and Matt Giteau are now in Japan, Drew Mitchell has retired and Leigh Halfpenny and Liam Gill have moved to the Scarlets and Lyon respectively. That’s some talent to replace, but the arrival of JP Pietersen, Luke McAlister and Chris Ashton should go some way to plugging the gaps.
New head coach Fabien Galthié hasn’t made any radical alterations to the playing style or the squad ethos, says Van der Merwe, which has made life easier for the players.
‘We had four pre-season games and they helped us understand and adapt to the changes he wants to implement in terms of style and philosophy.’
Few of the Toulon squad played more matches last season than Van der Merwe: 32 in all, including 19 starts. For a tighthead, that’s got to exact some wear and tear on even the toughest prop forward, but Van der Merwe was in great shape going into the new season.
‘It’s interesting to compare the Top 14 with Super Rugby because there’s more physicality in France, you bump into a few more bigger guys, but the pace and intensity of Super Rugby is greater,’ says the South African. ‘Before I arrived in France, I knew they liked their set piece and that was quickly confirmed. The coaches are fanatical about the scrum. But I enjoy it and I’m happy to accept the challenge.’
For a prop, Van der Merwe is at the tall end – 1.88m – but he doesn’t believe size matters for a front-row forward.
‘I see both sides of the argument, but for me it’s more to do with strength and technique,’ he says. ‘Look at the former All Black Carl Hayman – he was bigger than me [1.94m], and he’s arguably the greatest tighthead of his era. But then you have Davit Zirakashvili at Clermont [1.79m], who is small for a prop, but he’s a fantastic scrummager.’
Van der Merwe believes he’s not the same player he was in 2015 when he won the last of his seven caps for the Springboks. The French test has done him a world of good, technically and temperamentally.
‘I’ve improved dramatically in the past couple of years,’ he reflects. ‘Particularly from a set-piece perspective, because I’ve learned so much and I think I’m a far better player.’
It’s also been a challenge emotionally, as it is for any Saffa arriving in France to adapt to a culture so entirely different to the one they’ve known at home.
‘The language barrier is hard,’ he admits, ‘and there’s also – it’s hard to put into words – adapting to the French way of doing things. I can’t explain it, but it’s just different.’
So, what about the chances of adding a few more Springbok caps to his collection?
‘Yes, it’s an ambition,’ he replies. ‘Of course I’d love to play for the Boks again, but it will be difficult with what’s happened with the selection criteria [the 30-Test rule for overseas players].’
Van der Merwe hasn’t made any plans for the future beyond this season. Wait and see, is his philosophy, and in the meantime the world waits to see what will unfold at Toulon this season. Will it be another horror story, or maybe a fairytale finish?
– This article first appeared in the October 2017 issue of SA Rugby magazine
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