Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, France-based FLIP VAN DER MERWE talks about the mess the Springboks find themselves in, who he rates as South Africa’s best locks and previews the Paris Test on Saturday.
Sport24 asked: What was your take on South Africa’s drubbing against Ireland?
Flip van der Merwe: You just have to check my Twitter profile to see what I was feeling after the Springboks suffered their heaviest-ever defeat to Ireland in their history. The performance was pretty bad, and my dismay was not just down to the fact that we lost the Test match. A loss is natural but, whenever you put on a Springbok jersey, you should never accept defeat. It was the way in which we lost that hurt me the most, as someone who has played 37 Tests for my country. The players were almost like ghosts on the field and it appeared to me as if the team simply accepted defeat last Saturday in Dublin. Post-defeat, I believe the players should have been looking at themselves in the mirror rather than posting on social media sites. The latest trend these days is to be popular on social media, and you didn’t have to search too far to see where the players’ heads were at after they were given a rugby lesson by Joe Schmidt’s charges. When you are not performing well on the field, for me, you should stay off social media and focus more on your rugby. At the moment, I don’t actually think we can blame Allister Coetzee because the problems are higher than him. It almost feels as though the men in suits at SA Rugby set Coetzee up to fail. With Johann van Graan departing for Munster after the French Test and Brendan Venter also taking his leave, it seems the planning wasn’t in existence. I don’t really know what is going on over there – it’s a mess!
Sport24 asked: What do you make of the composition of the Springbok squad?
Flip van der Merwe: It’s positive to see Duane Vermeulen pack in the Bok fold. I definitely think that we need more experienced players like him to lead the way. Experience is invaluable when it comes to Test rugby. On the weekend, we saw that when the Bok replacements came on, and we took off almost all of our stand-out players, Ireland managed to score three tries in the final 10 minutes. The trick is to have experience around the young guys but, in saying that, this isn’t such a young Bok team anymore and the players need to take responsibility for their on-field performances. For me, the sad thing is that Jan Serfontein can’t be on the end-of-year tour. I think he plays a great leadership role in the Bok backline, and management should have planned in advance to have someone with his amount of experience. I feel Serfontein is being missed big time on this northern hemisphere tour. Vermeulen and Francois Louw are the only overseas-based players in the current Springbok squad, so not many foreign-based players are taking up team places and keeping South African-based players out of the team. There have been calls in some quarters to include more European-based Springboks. Racing 92’s Francois Steyn can feel unlucky not to be in the national set-up, but I think that’s about it to be honest. The Du Plessis brothers – Bismarck and Jannie – are both out injured and SA Rugby has made their bed in terms of picking predominantly home-based players and they must lie in it. I also believe the 30-cap Test policy is a good initiative because the aim should be to keep the bulk of our players in South Africa. If you set a policy, then why not use it?
Sport24 asked: How would you appraise the state of South African rugby?
Flip van der Merwe: It’s been eight years since South Africa won the (now defunct) Tri-Nations and seven years since a local Super Rugby franchise won the trophy. Those stats tell me that it’s definitely time for us to win something again. The bottom line is that we’ve got a massive lack of experience currently within South African rugby. The last time we won a significant trophy was in the Victor Matfield, Fourie du Preez era when we had loads of players with 50-plus caps in the Springbok side and a number of experienced campaigners playing for their Super Rugby franchises. I do believe we are working towards that again and, if players like Eben Etzebeth and the pack around him get settled in, we can build from that base and make the Boks a world force. Meanwhile, in the backline, the likes of Ross Cronjé and Elton Jantjies have blown hot and cold, but being afforded game time gives the players confidence. (Jantjies has been axed in favour of Handré Pollard, who is set to start for the first time since 2015). When young players stick around and start getting Test match experience, it’s ultimately to the advantage of the national team. However, players remaining in South Africa does unfortunately still come down to some big guys in suits with cheque books. On the plus side, it’s great news for the future of our game that the SA Rugby council decided to open the door for greater equity investment, which permits 74% shareholdings in commercial arms of rugby unions by private equity partners. It’s an excellent idea and we should have gone down that route a long time ago because the amateur side of the game is killing professional rugby. I know it’s a very sentimental topic in South Africa and, if you tell club presidents that the amateur arm of the game is killing the sport, they will get angry, red-faced and you cannot reason with them. However, having private equity partners makes sense in the professional era. I believe it will be great for the unions at large as it’s going to attract big business to rugby. It will also generate more interest in the game and we will be able to retain a fair amount of our top players. Furthermore, it will enable the amateur arms of the clubs to be amateur again and decision-making at the bigger unions will improve as well.
Sport24 asked: You played your last Test in 2015. Is that chapter now closed?
Flip van der Merwe: I would never say never in terms of playing for the Springboks again. If they called me up, I wouldn’t turn down the invitation, but we are very blessed in South Africa to have strength in depth in the lock position. I signed a two-year contract extension with Clermont and am enjoying my rugby. However, I’m definitely not better than any lock playing for the national team at the moment. I would retain Etzebeth and Lood de Jager as our starting lock combination. They are world-class locks and we have to keep selecting them. I have nothing against Franco Mostert, who brings plenty of energy to the pack, but I still maintain that he is a bit too small for international rugby. He’s also a bit too light for a second-rower and, in contrast, you could see the impact a player like Lood made when he came back into the starting line-up against the All Blacks at Newlands. You want a pack of forwards that can assert their physical dominance. We must decide on the type of rugby we want to play, use the kind of players that suit our game plan and then build a team towards the 2019 Rugby World Cup. In terms of the back-row, for my money, the Springboks have been at their best when they have had a big, ball-carrying seven. Lock-cum-flank Pieter-Steph du Toit makes the most of himself as a blindside flank and he reminds me of Danie Rossouw, who also offered versatility. His role is to make effective tackles and slow down the ball. I believe Du Toit will grow in maturity in the position and he has already made a strong impact for South Africa. He has the brawn and will continue to develop his on-field brain and make even smarter decisions. When he overcomes his symptoms of concussion, the national selectors should stick with Du Toit on the flank.
Sport24 asked: Your views ahead of the 43rd Test between the Boks and France?
Flip van der Merwe: South Africa whitewashed France 3-0 in the June series this year but, truth be told, France sent a pretty poor squad over to South Africa. This French side will be a different proposition and the Springbok performances of late will give the hosts confidence. They will say to themselves: “Hey, we can give the Springboks a go and we may be able to beat one of the historically strong southern hemisphere sides.” The French will be looking to avenge the three-Test series defeat in June, which French captain Guilhem Guirado described in the press this week as a “catastrophic tour”. There will be a backlash from both teams at the Stade de France on Saturday night, having lost to Ireland and New Zealand respectively. To be honest, I don’t actually know how the Springboks are playing at the moment. I would just like to see that it looks like the Boks have some kind of plan and are more accurate in terms of execution. The way they are giving away precious ball possession is something which will see the French licking their lips. Guy Novès boasts great outside backs at his disposal, with an exceptional attacking spirit to boot. If France are presented with the ball on a plate, they are going to prove a handful for South Africa in Paris. I played against France on two occasions. The first was my international debut in 2010 and the second was in 2013, which was one of the toughest Test matches I ever played in my career. You should never get it wrong; the French are a massively physical team and possess some big ball-carriers. If you let them in and start slipping tackles, they are really going to keep you busy. It’s not the fact that the Springboks are currently fifth in the World Rugby rankings that hurts more than anything; instead it’s the way in which they have handled themselves. Hopefully they can pick themselves up against what I feel is a very strong French side and restore pride in the famous green and gold jersey.
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