After missing out on a chance to go to the Rugby World Cup in 2019, Akker van der Merwe is in a race against time to earn selection for the Lions series, writes ANDRE-PIERRE CRONJE.
Van der Merwe makes his return to rugby on Friday, 4 March off the bench for Sale. The Springbok hooker has been plagued with injury but will finally have the chance to demonstrate why he’s held in such high regard.
It will unquestionably be Van der Merwe’s intention to catch the eye of Bok coaches Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber as they start to finalise their squad ahead of the upcoming British & Irish Lions series.
It’s worth delving into the past to fully understand the importance of next few months for Van der Merwe. A sequence of events, which started two years ago in early 2019, have shaped his rugby career to date – and may yet shape its future.
With only a few months to go before the 2019 Rugby World Cup, Malcolm Marx and Bongi Mbonambi had secured in their status as the two foremost hookers in South Africa. A 33-man squad, however, typically includes three hookers.
Rassie Erasmus therefore had a decision to make on who would be the final hooker joining the Springbok party ahead of the World Cup.
There were two obvious candidates. Akker van der Merwe, the former Lion who was now in fine form for the Sharks and the veteran Schalk Brits, who had returned from retirement to give it one last crack.
As the competition between these two players reached its zenith, matters got out of hand. Both were involved in an ugly on-field altercation when the Vodacom Bulls played the Sharks. Punches were thrown, words were said, cards were brandished.
Ultimately, Brits ended up boarding the plane to Japan and the rest is history.
Although Van der Merwe later played down what had happened, he will surely be ruing that day at Kings Park. Knowing full well that he came within a whisker of being involved in the Springboks’ World Cup glory.
Since that day the burly hooker has moved to Sale in the Premiership and has been one of their best acquisitions. True to his ‘Angry Warthog’ moniker, Van der Merwe has been on the charge.
Before injury had laid him low this season, there was every reason to believe that Van der Merwe was back within Bok selection parameters. It has been a frustrating spell on the sidelines that is sure to have made the angry warthog even angrier.
Now that he is back from injury, Van der Merwe will no doubt be more motivated than ever. There is still enough time before the Lions series for him to lay down a marker.
The situation among South Africa’s hookers today is strikingly similar to 2019. Marx and Mbonambi remain the two guaranteed selections, but below them the competition is fierce and the spot in the squad is anyone’s to claim.
Domestically, Scarra Ntubeni remains the most senior contender for that opportunity. However, there are also the talented-but-green youngsters Fez Mbatha and Schalk Erasmus who will by vying for it. Internationally, Joseph Dweba also stakes a strong claim.
Over the coming months, it will become clearer which player is best poised to step into the breach and take a hold of their destiny.
When he finally takes the field again today, Van der Merwe will have the opportunity to right the wrongs of the past. He’s been walking the path to redemption and although the journey may still have a few summits to crest, you wouldn’t bet against him.