Bulls bruiser Akker not letting Bok snub get him down

‘I don’t think we want to make the occasion too big – otherwise it is like a deer in the headlights,’ Bulls hooker Akker van der Merwe said about facing the Stormers. | BackpagePix

‘I don’t think we want to make the occasion too big – otherwise it is like a deer in the headlights,’ Bulls hooker Akker van der Merwe said about facing the Stormers. | BackpagePix

Published Feb 24, 2024


HE may have been called the ‘Angry Warthog’ by Nick Mallett for his aggressive style on the pitch, but Akker van der Merwe also has a good sense of humour off it.

Asked yesterday why he decided to leave Sale Sharks in Manchester and join the Bulls this season, the 32-year-old hooker said: “Let me say my English airtime was finished!”

There is no doubt that Van der Merwe – born in Vanderbijlpark and raised in George – is a proud Afrikaner, and that was also part of the reason he opted to come back home, this time to Pretoria.

“Family was the big reason to come back – our culture, our people. I enjoyed the rugby (in England), but it was just rugby,” he said after a training session in preparation for next Saturday’s huge United Rugby Championship showdown with the Stormers at Loftus Versfeld.

“I’m not saying that my family didn’t enjoy it, but I would say that we are flourishing much more at home, around our family, people we love, our buddies.

“It was a big factor. I am all about family, and that my grandpas and grandmas only saw the kids once or twice per year wasn’t enough for me.

“The weather also helps! It was nice for me to go and fetch the kids at school, but then they had to play inside. At one stage, I was tired of building Legos!

“I want them to run around outside, get full of mud and get dirty.”

It has been an inspired move, with Van der Merwe providing an abrasive physical presence in the front row that has contributed significantly to a powerful Bulls scrum alongside Gerhard Steenekamp and another new recruit, Wilco Louw.

Van der Merwe benefited from Johan Grobbelaar’s lengthy hamstring injury lay-off and has now scored eight tries in the URC, which places him second on the competition list.

That is why it was a major surprise when he wasn’t included in the 43-man group invited to the first Springbok alignment camp of the year, which starts on March 4 in Cape Town.

Instead, his fellow Bulls hookers, Grobbelaar and youngster Jan-Hendrik Wessels, got the nod, along with Cheetahs No 2 Marnus van der Merwe, the Stormers’ André-Hugo Venter, Malcolm Marx and Bongi Mbonambi.

Asked if he had received any feedback on his play from Bok coach Rassie Erasmus, Van der Merwe said: “No. I could easily now fall into a hole and feel sorry for myself, and almost give up hope. But it is always better to keep working hard and strive to get there.

“It’s a good place for the Bulls to be as there are two hookers at the camp. It is massive for the Bulls to have guys at the camp – there are a lot of young guys too.

“Then I just go and look at all the games and see where I can improve, because obviously then there is something I need to work on.

“I won’t ever say that I am the complete player, or that I’ve mastered every single task. There is always room for improvement, so it just drives me to be better every day – be more consistently better.”

Well, producing another massive performance in helping the Bulls to end a seven-match losing streak against the Stormers next Saturday would be a perfect reminder to the Bok coaches that Van der Merwe – who earned three Test caps in 2018 and is the brother of Scotland wing Duhan – is worthy of selection.

That is especially important as Malcolm Marx is still sidelined by the knee injury that ended his 2023 World Cup prematurely, while Mbonambi only returned to action from his knee injury in the World Cup final for the Sharks against the Stormers last weekend.

Apart from his international ambitions, it is all about finally ending the Bulls’ losing run against the Stormers for Van der Merwe.

“I don’t think we want to make the occasion too big – otherwise it is like a deer in the headlights,” the former Lions and Sharks No 2 said.

“We have played a few games well here and there, and then this is good and that is good. So, I think if we can get that complete performance for 80 minutes, then we should come out on top – because we haven’t had one game where we had a full 80 minutes where everything was firing.

“If we are in the 22, then we must convert. It’s just about not getting frantic, and being a bit more composed.

“At the end of the day, it is just another game – even though it is very important. I don’t think the occasion must ever become bigger than the game, and that’s sometimes the mistake we make – that there’s almost that fear that comes in.

“If we believe in ourselves and just focus on what we do to the best of our abilities, then things would already go much better.”