Springbok captain Siya Kolisi and assistant coach Mzwandile Stick insist there will be no animosity towards South African-born British & Irish Lions wing Duhan van der Merwe on Saturday, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
Earlier this week, Warren Gatland confirmed that Van der Merwe would start the first Test on the left wing, with the Lions coach interestingly opting to select the big South African over Josh Adams.
After informing the squad about his selections, Gatland said he had spoken to Van der Merwe and asked him: “Do you know what’s coming on Saturday?”
Gatland added that Van der Merwe was fully aware.
“I presume every time he touches the ball the Boks will be trying to hit him with everything they’ve got. There will probably be some verbals at him as well. He’s well aware of what’s at stake.”
Former Edinburgh head coach Richard Cockeril also spoke this week about Van der Merwe’s evolution as a player and how any scrutiny and pressure would only serve to motivate him further.
“As for sledging him, he’ll shrug it off. Temperamentally he is sound,” Cockerill said. “It will only make him more determined, more aggressive. You’re better off being nice to him.”
With that in mind, it appears the Springboks will be adopting the latter approach.
At a virtual media briefing on Friday, Stick delivered a superb quip when the topic of Van der Merwe’s selection came up.
“You know we are good people as South Africans, if it wasn’t for the pandemic we surely would have invited Duhan for a braaivleis,” he said with a smile.
And on the eve of the opening Test, when Kolisi was asked whether there might be a particular target on the back of the former Junior Springbok, he suggested the Boks would rather reserve their energy for more important matters than engaging in verbal warfare.
“You clearly wouldn’t have heard anything from our side, we’ve never been that kind of team and we never will be. We just want to go about our business, focus on the game and not on one player.
“That doesn’t come from our side, so I don’t know anything about it. We haven’t said we’re going to be coming out and chirping, no, we’re going to be saving our energy for the work we need to do.”
However, Stick added that they couldn’t overlook the physicality that someone like Van der Merwe would bring to proceedings.
“When it comes to playing the British & Irish Lions, we will have to be at our best in all departments. They have a good kicking game, and also on the day if they have space out wide, with their outside backs they will be dangerous. You also can’t neglect the physical impact a guy like Duhan will bring in that backline.
“I think they’ve selected a strong side physically, but also with pace, so we will have to execute our plans well. I think the side that is most desperate will come out on top.”
And although some rather tired criticism has recently emerged about the Springboks’ style of play, along with suggestions they are lacking match preparation, Stick laughed this off.
“I think we are in a good position. If you look at our squad here, numerous players started the World Cup final. Ox [Nche] is the only one in the starting lineup who wasn’t with us at the World Cup.
“I don’t think we will be underdone; remember, we have spent more than three years with these guys. As a South African team, we can’t run away from our strengths. When it comes to the physical side of the game, it’s in our DNA, so are the set pieces.
“So, we need to first earn the right to play any fancy rugby. I’m not going to comment on what people are staying about our style, if it means we’ll win a World Cup or the Lions series [with our style], we’ll continue. In 20 years, people will forget about our style, but they will remember we won the World Cup.
“We’re proud to be South Africans and proud of the way we play.”