Warthog rampage

Armand van der Merwe has produced several explosive performances for the Lions, writes BRENTON CHELIN.

It has become a familiar sight at Ellis Park this season. Armand van der Merwe careening down the touchline, bouncing off would-be tacklers before delivering the ball for an onrushing teammate in a move that defies all that has come before it. His arrival on the South African rugby scene draws parallels with the way he plays the game.

Having started the year in the Varsity Cup, his inclusion in the Lions’ Super Rugby squad for the tour to Australasia caught many people off guard, himself included.

‘We came to practise with the Lions on a Monday and a Tuesday a week after the Varsity Cup ended,’ reflects Van der Merwe. ‘A week later, I was going on tour with them. It was a big surprise.’

The Varsity Cup has become a fertile breeding ground for potential franchise players, but progress through the ranks is usually more gradual. Only a handful have made the jump from Varsity Cup directly to Super Rugby, and fewer still with the ease shown by Van der Merwe. Players of his ilk tend to suffer initially at a higher level, where the opposition aren’t only bigger and stronger, but also possess far superior skills. Van der Merwe, however, took to Super Rugby like a seasoned veteran, scoring a try in his second match against the Highlanders as the Lions fell agonisingly short of a rare win on New Zealand soil.

Lions coach Johan Ackermann admits Van der Merwe had been on his radar for a while, thanks mainly to his exploits with Pukke. Under former Springbok scrumhalf Robert du Preez, Pukke finished top of the Varsity Cup log with six wins from their seven outings, before suffering an agonising loss in the final. Van der Merwe played an integral role in their success, and was nominated for Forward and Player of the Year. The Lions kept a close eye on his progress and, after Willie Wepener was struck down by injury, Ackermann acted, with the help of CEO Rudolf Straeuli.

‘We had watched one or two games earlier in the season, so we knew what we were getting in Armand,’ Ackermann says. ‘The thing that caught our eye the first time he worked with us was his explosiveness. And then obviously for his size, he’s a very strong tackler. He was still contracted to the Leopards so we had to get that out of the way.

‘We want to be on good terms with the Leopards and Pukke, because they’re part of our Super Rugby franchise. Rudolf discussed it with their CEO and Robert du Preez, and we thought it best that he play with us in the Currie Cup Premier Division,   as well as the rest of the Super Rugby tournament.’

Van der Merwe was born in Vanderbijlpark in Johannesburg, but lived most of his life in George, where he was schooled at Hoërskool Outeniqua. He played age-group rugby for SWD throughout his school years, culminating in an appearance at Craven Week in 2009.

Van der Merwe decided to study in Potchefstroom after being spotted while playing at the annual Pukke Skouspel festival. Involvement in the Leopards’ age-group structures followed, where he played alongside future Bok Lood de Jager. Van der Merwe attributes much of his development to his time in Potch.

‘I never really had the speed until I went to Pukke. They worked a lot on my conditioning and I learned a lot from coach Robert du Preez.’

He has continued his apprenticeship under Ackermann, Balie Swart and even Wepener at the Lions. Swart and Ackermann make mention of Van der Merwe’s tremendous work ethic, which stands him in good stead as he looks to clean up some of the rough edges in his game.

‘We’ve spent a lot of time working on his lineout throws and his scrummaging,’ says Ackermann. ‘He has the ability to be one of the best in the game. He’s working with myself and Balie, but also Willie, who has given a lot of advice to the younger guys. It’s just those finer details that need work, but he is willing to put in the hard yards. With more experience in the middle of the scrum and at this level, he’s only going to get better and better.’

Van der Merwe was making headlines in September, with a flurry of explosive performances, none more eye-catching than his Man of the Match display against Western Province. The usually reliable Province defensive structure was unable to deal with his unique blend of pace, power and intelligence as he scored one try, before laying on another for Kwagga Smith.

He has thrived in Ackermann’s more expansive game plan, where phase play and continuity on attack is valued. It allows him to target the opportune moment to have a go at tiring defenders, something he has done regularly during the Currie Cup season.

Looking ahead, Ackermann has hinted at a possible impact role during Super Rugby, where rotation is key during the gruelling season.

‘There are certain games when you might want to bring him off the bench to exploit tiring opposition in the last 20 minutes. Because he’s so strong and has a low centre of gravity, he can be a factor at the breakdown.’

Van der Merwe is only contracted to the Lions until the end of the 2015 Super Rugby season but, given his Currie Cup performances, a new deal may be in the offing. He has aspirations of his own.

‘People call us a young team, but this young team did the best the Lions have ever done in Super Rugby. If we continue improving, there’s no reason why we can’t make the play-offs next year.’

Finally, what does he think of the recent attention and Nick Mallett’s rather peculiar nickname for him, ‘Angry Warthog’?

‘I’m not quite sure where he got that one from,’ says Van der Merwe. ‘The guys have their own nickname for me – “Pumbaa”.’

A warthog that helped return a Lion to the throne. Perhaps it’s not as peculiar as he’d like to think.

– This article first appeared in the November 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine