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Forceful Franco outlasted 20

Fri, 28 Feb 2014 06:20
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Five coaches and 15 lock partners

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Springbok Franco van der Merwe has seen it all in a first-class career spanning a decade, especially since his arrival at the Lions in 2006.

The 30-year-old lock, who started out as a loose forward and was converted to the second row, has outlasted five coaches and 15 lock partners in Johannesburg.

So, when he describes the current pride of Johannesburg as "a very special group" of players, you have to believe him.

"They want to play for each other and want to bring the pride back for this team in Johannesburg," Van der Merwe told this website in an interview ahead of their Super Rugby Round Three encounter with the Bulls.

Despite an unbeaten start to the season - a one-point win against the Cheetahs and a 24-point demolition of the Stormers, a match in which they displayed a real resolve - the veteran lock was cautious in his assessment of their short trip up the N1 to Pretoria for a trans-Jukskei derby.

"The guys are still very humble and excited about [playing in] Super Rugby [again]," he said of their return to the competition, after watching from the sidelines in 2013.

Van der Merwe, who arrived at the Lions in 2006 after a few seasons with the Leopards in Potchefstroom, often gets asked about the number of first class games he has played - a tally which is actually more than 250.

"I actually get asked if I played in the Super 10 [back in the early '90s]," Van der Merwe quipped.

"I counted the other day, I have been through five coaches and 15 lock partners [since my Super Rugby debut in 2007]," he told this website.

"Things have changed a lot over the years here at the Lions.

"There were good times - when we won a Currie Cup [with a 42–16 win over the Sharks in the 2011 Final], we've been in a [Currie Cup] Final [losing 18-20 to the Free State Cheetahs] and we've had a good start in Super Rugby.

"We've also had some bad runs," he said of a Super Rugby record that has seen the Lions finish 15th (with just three wins in 2012), 14th (three wins, 2011), 14th (no wins, 2010), 12th (four wins, 2009, 14th (two wins, 2008) and 12th (five wins, 2007).

"I've experienced a bit of everything," the veteran lock said, adding: ""It is a bit early to make any assertions about this season.

"We can  take it only game-by-game.

"Our focus at present is simply the next game," he said of their encounter with the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday.

"There is no doubt that this is a special group of players.

"There is a good energy and I have said on a number of times that this energy must only be channelled in the right direction.

"I feel that from the coaches, through the conditioning staff and management are channelling it well. The manner in which they are managing the players is what is making this such a special group."

He said the reason the Lions are such a content bunch is that they enjoy the way they play.

"We enjoy the way we are as a family, together, the spirit that exists in the group - that all contributes."

He added that the players come from all over. There are some from Pretoria, along with the massive size of Johannesburg, with guys staying in the north, east, west and south of the city.

There are guys who come from the Western Cape, even Nelspruit and Potchefstroom.

"There is a huge variety of personalities and it is great to see how we are gelling together," he told this website.

"[Coach] Johan Ackermann is playing a massive role in the way we are gelling together and the way we are sticking together as a group of players.

"We are a bunch of great guys who enjoy playing rugby together.

"We have bought into the system and we are working hard for each other."

The lock, who joined the Sharks on loan for the 2013 Super Rugby season and played in all 16 games, has been included in several Springbok squads since June 2012.

Van der Merwe made his only Test appearance, as a replacement, against New Zealand in October last year.

By Jan de Koning

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