Franco’s road to the Currie Cup crown
His form was slumping, his side was struggling and Lion’s skipper Franco van der Merwe realised it was either relinquishing the captaincy of the Joburg’ based outfit’s Super Rugby team or losing his place in the match XV.
At the end of March, Van der Merwe stepped down, handed the reins to centre Doppies la Grange and said that he needed to work on his own game.
Considering the words of his former coach at the NWU Puk and the Leopards, Jacques Swanepoel, one gets a glimpse of how difficult the tough as nails utility-forward’s decision must have been.
Franco van der Merwe. Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images AsiaPac.
“Franco has always been a leader, it is who he is. I remember this one occasion when I took the NWU Puk squad to an army training camp at the Potchefstroom Artillery Base.
“They slept outside on the terrain for two nights. It was an especially gruelling camp which really tested the guys. We had players like Naas Olivier, Ronnie Cooke en Barry Geel in the squad, and it was remarkable to see how Franco stepped up as a leader. He is the quintessential captain,” Swanepoel explains.
The decision vexed his very soul, but Van der Merwe realised that his other attributes, those which first brought him to the Lion’s attention and made him a mainstay in the squad, were slowly rusting away and his performances became increasingly ordinary.
Swanepoel: “Franco’s athleticism and intellect has always been hallmarks of his game. The players were also constantly lauding him for his work ethic on and off the field and he had a tremendous sense of responsibility.”
It was this sense of responsibility, his unwavering belief in what’s best for the team, which made him come to the conclusion that he means more to the Lions as a player at his peak than as captain stuck in third gear.
It was a cerebral approach that, for those who know the Van der Mere, came as little surprise: the lanky lock is sharp as a tack to the end. Whilst playing for the NWU Puk he completed his honour’s degree in human resource management and was voted the NWU Puk-rugby institute’s Dux Player of the year for his commitment to his studies and he was head of his hostel, Over de Voor.
Swanepoel does, however, recall an incident when Van der Merwe doubted his own prowess.
“We were driving back from Rustenburg after suffering a big loss to the Bulls when Franco turned to me and said: ‘Coach, I don’t think I am going to make it as a player. Maybe I should quit rugby and start looking for a job.’
“I said to him: ‘Franco, your time will come. You’re almost there.’ I’ll never forget that moment.”
In front of 60 000 ecstatic supporters at a packed Coca-Cola Park, Van der Merwe’s resolution to focus on his personal game was vindicated when the Lions lifted the Currie Cup after demolishing the Sharks 42-12.
It was an emphatic win and Van der Merwe’s workmanlike performance was instrumental in securing the cup for the first time since 1999.
“It was amazing, there were so many emotions. It was the realisation of a dream. I’ve been involved with the Lions since 2006 and we came close in 2007, but to now win the Currie Cup is a feeling on a different level,” Van der Merwe explains.
“We were well ahead during the game and we knew the Sharks couldn’t make a comeback, but it only sunk in when the final whistle blew.
“We were ecstatic, we yelled and grabbed each other, it was just great and even more so doing it on a packed Coca-Cola Park. I think it was our best game of the season. So many people thought we couldn’t do it and we proved them wrong.”
Van der Merwe heaped praise on John Mitchell who orchestrated the Lions transformation.
“He is a great technical coach who’s really focussed on detail. His defensive and attacking structures are exemplary. He is a holistic coach, on and off the field, who brought back discipline and passion to the Lions.
“And, if he wants something he’ll make sure he’ll get it.”
After a disastrous 2010 Super Rugby campaign which saw the Lions lose all 13 of their fixtures, Mitchell succeeded Dick Muir as coach and wasted no time in sweeping the broom.
“At the start of the Currie Cup last year, I stood looking at the squad and almost didn’t recognise anybody. There were a few familiar guys like Doppies (la Grange) and Baywatch (Cobus Grobbelaar), but so many fresh and unfamiliar faces. “
The Lions showed glimpses of the team that would dominate the 2011 Currie Cup albeit a lack of consistency.
“Our turning point, I think, came in Sydney during the Super 15. The group got together and we said that we couldn’t continue like we were. We emphasised that we need to start playing proper rugby and we won a few games. At the start of the Currie Cup our confidence was there and we just gelled as a team who believed in each other.
“We had a great win against Griquas in Kimberly which gave us a lot of momentum and I think the final product was on display in the final.
“Many a person thought that, with the Springboks back, we wouldn’t stand a chance, but we had ample confidence and we backed ourselves. “
And back themselves they did, delivering a performance of absolute dominance against a side that had 16 internationals in their match 22.
“It’s undoubtedly the highlight of my career, alongside the game for the Emerging Springboks in 2009 when we drew with the British and Irish Lions in Cape Town after Willem de Waal slotted a conversion from the touch line in extra time. And, at the Puk Clayton Durand (his former Puk and Leopards teammate) and I coached the Overs when we won the Puk’s hostel league.”