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Franco Van der Merwe all fired-up for a battle with Paul O'Connell in PRO12 clash

By Jonathan Bradley

Published 08/05/2015

Aiming high: Franco van der Merwe says each of Ulster’s remaining games is a cup final as they aim to secure their place in the PRO12 decider at the Kingspan Stadium
Aiming high: Franco van der Merwe says each of Ulster’s remaining games is a cup final as they aim to secure their place in the PRO12 decider at the Kingspan Stadium

In a story often repeated by admiring team-mates, it is said that, prior to a Test against the Springboks, Paul O'Connell was once found learning Afrikaans in an effort to decipher the lineout calls of Victor Matfield and his forward colleagues.

The Irish captain, fit again after a shoulder complaint, won't be going to quite such lengths to understand any shouts to the sideline from Ulster's own South African lineout operator when Munster visit the Kingspan Stadium tomorrow (2.40pm) but Franco van der Merwe is primed for a set-piece battle with his opposite number nonetheless.

"He's the kind of player that you want to play against and that's why you work so hard," said the former Super Rugby lock who is nearing the end of his first season with Ulster.

With rumours of a post-World Cup retirement, or even a seemingly unlikely move to three-time European champions Toulon, continuing to swirl, this weekend could be O'Connell's final visit to the Kingspan should Munster not return to Belfast for the PRO12 final at the end of this month.

Van der Merwe, however, thinks that the man who captained the British and Irish Lions against his homeland in 2009 is still at the height of his powers.

"He's having a brilliant season and I've really got a lot of respect for how he's playing at this stage of his career," said the man from the Western Cape.

"You don't want to get involved too much in the personal battles and the one-on-ones because you can lose focus on the team as a whole but it's always a good thing to measure yourself against a guy who's played 100 Tests and has so much experience.

"It's important that we impress at the set-piece in terms of our own lineout and putting pressure on theirs. In terms of the scrum there's only so much I can do but if the team performs well then the individuals will stand out."

Munster's pack may not have the plethora of fearsome figures that characterised their double Heineken Cup winning heyday but it is still a formidable unit and Van der Merwe is sure that a traditional forwards battle will ensue tomorrow afternoon - especially if the wet weather from earlier this week returns.

"I think they'll really bring it up front," said the 32-year-old. "The quality players they bring in that pack are really going to be up for it.

"There's a lot of experience and O'Connell (pictured) will really drive them. They're not that flashy, they're just hard-working and they really work hard for each other.

"It's going to be tough but that's why we play this game, that's why we train all week. It's nice when it gets a bit rough and tough.

"The weather will obviously play a big part in the way we want to play but we've adapted well, especially recently, when the rain came so we'll be prepared.

"We know how they're going to play, we know how we want to play and hopefully we can come out on the better side."

Inter-provincial derbies are rarely lacking in edge but with Munster just one point ahead of Ulster in the race for a PRO12 home semi-final, and only two rounds of fixtures remaining, Van der Merwe is enjoying the intensity.

"It's another massive inter-pro but as a team we've been picking up our confidence week by week so it's one that we're really looking forward to," he said.

"A few games back we said that it's going to be like a cup final every time we play and that's exactly what it is this weekend. Playing against Leinster was a huge game and the whole week you could feel the intensity lifting.

"It's been the same this week and that's exactly what you want."

Ulster are unable to clinch an all-important place in the top two this weekend - both Glasgow and Munster could achieve the feat with wins of varying degrees and dependent on other results - but Van der Merwe is not one to concern himself with the myriad play-off implications.

"At the end of the day, all we can control is the game on Saturday," he said. "We can't control what other teams are doing against each other so we're not going to be lying around wondering about what else is happening.

"It's a cup final this weekend against Munster and that's what we need to think about.

"Playing in a final at home would be really good, and it is a nice carrot to have, but if you start thinking too much about it and planning too far ahead, you might not even see the final."

For a team handed such a boost with the news that the showpiece conclusion to the campaign would be on home soil, that would be some disappointment indeed.

Belfast Telegraph

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