Off the Radar: Flip van der Merwe

What is former Bok, Vodacom Bulls and Clermont lock Flip van der Merwe up to now? We find out in the latest SA Rugby magazine.

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Playing career

Flip van der Merwe is one of the most recognisable South African internationals, having played well over 150 first-class provincial matches and 36 Tests for the Springboks. However, throughout his career he has also been one of the most polarising players, who had to fight to prove himself.

Born in Potchefstroom, but schooled at Grey College, Van der Merwe’s rugby career took flight in the Free State, where he went played for the Cheetahs from 2007 to 2009. His abrasive, hard-nosed approach to the game saw the bulky lock make a lasting impression which soon led to a high-profile move to the Bulls in 2009.

‘I have been fortunate to have had great mentors at important times throughout my development. I had great educators at a young age, people who encouraged me not to only work hard at rugby but also make good life decisions,’ Van der Merwe says.

‘When I arrived at the Bulls, I had a soft landing with the coaching staff and players there. In their own way, every one of them, with a special mention to Frans Ludeke, mentored me. My family also played an important role in supporting me and keeping me grounded.’

Being a lock in the same provincial team as legendary duo Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha was in itself a difficult challenge, but Van der Merwe easily held his own while in the company of two of the most accomplished and decorated players in the history of the game. He forced his way not only into the Bulls Super Rugby team but also into the Springboks set-up in the 2010 season.

When he made his first Test appearance against France at Newlands in 2010, Van der Merwe walked in the footsteps of his father and namesake, Flippie, who also represented South Africa. But he says while that was a proudest moment, he feels his most satisfying season came three years later.

‘Professionally, 2013 was my best season. We did well with the Bulls and the Springboks. It’s impossible to pick one game out of them all, but beating Australia in Brisbane was a highlight, as was playing the Super Rugby final in front of 100 000 people at the FNB Stadium in Soweto.’

Van der Merwe didn’t accumulate as many pieces of silverware as some of his more celebrated peers, but he won a Currie Cup and Super Rugby title with the Bulls in 2009 and 2010 respectively, and after joining Clermont in 2015, he added the French Top 14 title to his collection in 2017. Of course there were also injury setbacks and other disappointments during his playing time, but he singles out two things that were the peak and the low point of his career.

‘Winning a trophy always stays special, be it the Currie Cup, Super Rugby or French Top 14. But the moment that stands out for me is when we were on the bus on our way to the 2010 Super Rugby final in Orlando, Soweto. It’s impossible to describe how proud I was of our country at that moment.

‘Missing out on selection for the 2011 and 2015 World Cups will always be my low points.’

Life after rugby

After retiring in 2019, Van der Merwe seems to have made a seamless transition into the private sector. Still based in Europe, the 35-year-old works as a consultant in the information systems industry while completing his studies, which he put on hold due to his rugby responsibilities.

‘I’m studying towards an MBA at the University of Cambridge, which will finish in the summer. Outside that I work as a consultant in information systems focusing on data strategies.

‘I’ve been lucky to have worked before I played professional rugby, so I’ve always kept up my business ties and when I didn’t work, I studied something or did short courses to improve my overall life skills.’ 

Van der Merwe isn’t involved in the game at the moemnt. For now, he is more than happy to just be an avid fan spending his weekends watching from the couch.

‘I played my last game for Cambridge University in December 2019. And other than watching every possible game I can over weekends, I’ve not been actively involved in any rugby since then.’

Family life

Van der Merwe is still enjoying the bachelor’s lifestyle, but says he would like to start his own family someday.

‘My life is calm and fun outside the limelight at the moment,’ he admits. ‘I’m not married, but do want my own family one day. Until then, I try to be a mentor to young people and influence them in the same positive way my mentors influenced me.’

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Craig Lewis