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Irish can push South Africa, but don't have what it takes to win series: Van der Merwe

By Jonathan Bradley

Ulster lock Franco van der Merwe predicts his South African countrymen will be tested by Ireland over the next three weeks, but does not foresee Joe Schmidt's side claiming an historic scalp.

The 33-year-old - who signed a one-year deal to remain at the Kingspan Stadium next season - was capped once by the Springboks, in a memorable clash with New Zealand three years ago, and thinks his adopted homeland are capable of pushing a new-look South Africa.

"They (Ireland) are a side that has improved a lot," the former Lion told Times Live in South Africa. "We saw in the November Test last year (2014) when they beat us what they are capable of. They have also beaten Australia, proving they are very successful.

"Joe Schmidt is a very good and intelligent coach with a very fit squad. The Irish are a proud nation and they put an emphasis on first-phase ball and are good scrummagers.

"The side lost a few players. Most recently, (Johnny) Sexton's injury was a massive blow for them because he would have made a big difference."

While South Africa have lost plenty of experience since the World Cup for the visit of Ireland - who have never won in the country - including Van der Merwe's clubmate Ruan Pienaar, new coach Allister Coetzee still has a beefy set of forwards to choose from.

Van der Merwe - whose Ulster team-mate Andrew Trimble will turn out for Ireland - is looking forward to watching the battle between the packs, especially in his own area of expertise - the engine room.

"The Irish take pride in their pack of forwards," he said. "They have a lot of good locks in Ireland but so do we.

"One can look at how Eben (Etzebeth) and Lood (de Jager) played when they faced each other in that last Super Rugby match (between Stormers and Cheetahs) and imagine what they can do together. We have brilliant locks.

"Eben is more than capable of standing up against any lock in the world. He is a great enforcer. Lood has matured a lot. Ireland have some great locks of their own.

"There is Ultan Dillane who plays for Connacht, he is a young, massive and very good player. They have more experience in Devin Toner, a tall lineout specialist. It will be a great second row battle.

"Ireland will come out with everything they've got. But I'm confident that the Boks will win the series. Some of the games may be close, but the Boks should take it."

With Ireland having arrived in Cape Town on Monday ahead of this weekend's first Test in Newlands, much of the local focus has been centred on the three native South Africans in Schmidt's travelling party.

Munster back-rower CJ Stander seems sure to be involved on Saturday, while Connacht lock Quinn Roux and Leinster hooker Richardt Strauss will be hoping to join him, with Ireland's assistant coach Simon Easterby saying yesterday that the trio would be out to prove a point against the nation of their birth.

"CJ, over the last three seasons with Munster, has been outstanding. He's been a real talisman for them," he said. "He's come into our Six Nations squad and done particularly well.

"He plays with his heart on his sleeve and is a real leader. He'll be emotional at the weekend along with Quinn and Richardt.

"They are guys who are very passionate about where they were brought up but passionate about wearing the green jersey.

"To a man, that has come through. You get a sense that they're very keen to show the country that they were born in what they're missing."

At the end of this long, World Cup-affected season, Ireland are touring without a host of key men. When Schmidt names his team tomorrow, there will be no Sexton, no Sean O'Brien, no Tommy Bowe, no Peter O'Mahony and no Rob Kearney.

Easterby, however, is refusing to use injuries as an excuse and expects younger players to step up and fill the void left by the experienced absentees.

"Every team will travel, I'm sure, from the northern hemisphere this summer without certain players and we're no different," he said. "What it does do is allow us to view these players up close for the next three weeks.

"Players who have stood up domestically in the PRO12 have been given the opportunity. It will build some depth and they can lay a marker down for the guys who aren't here.

"It's great. We build depth looking ahead to (the World Cup in) 2019 and we'll find out a lot about players in a really intense environment against one of the best sides in the world."

Belfast Telegraph


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