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Last Updated: Thursday, 25 September, 2003, 08:54 GMT 09:54 UK
Schalk's animal magic
By Mike Burnett

Schalk van der Merwe tackles Andrew Mitchell of Australia during the IRB Sevens game between Namibia and Australia
Van der Merwe (right) has taken on some powerful creatures in his time
Namibia's Schalk van der Merwe aims to tame the fearsome forwards of Australia and Ireland with a few tricks from his day job.

Facing the likes of rugby heavyweights George Smith or Keith Wood is a daunting prospect for anyone, especially World Cup minnows Namibia.

But one Welwitchias player deals with much fiercer opponents on a day-to-day basis.

Flanker Van der Merwe trains and takes care of wild animals, although he is keen to play down images of a circus ring with a chair in one hand and whip in the other.

"No, I'm not a lion tamer, but I do look after them, take them for walks, play with them and stroke them," he told this website.

"It's a family thing which we started quite a long time ago. We take animal orphans in - lions, leopards, cheetahs, baboons, all kind of species.

"We look after them - trying to give them the best home possible."

We, as players, are more focused and confident this time
Schalk van der Merwe
These animals might be extremely dangerous in most people's eyes, but Van der Merwe knows no fear.

"My friends think I'm a little bit crazy, but if you have a dog and it grows up, it's like a friend to you, and for me it's the same."

Van der Merwe is certainly close to his animals - last year he slept alongside a large adult lion as part of his job.

But the 29-year-old does not expect Australia, Argentina, Ireland and Romania in Pool A to be so easy to tame.

"It's a totally different ball game. I know how to play rugby but they're very good in what they do. We'll go out and try to do our best."

Van der Merwe, brother-in-law of team-mate Rudi van Vuuren, is a veteran of Namibia's World Cup debut four years ago, when he played as centre.

The side lost all of their group games in 1999, but the Namibian was still glad to be there.

"I was lucky to be there that time around. At the beginning for us it was very exciting just to go down there, play against the big teams and experience a World Cup.

"We, as players, are more focused and confident this time. We will go and try to succeed.

"We won't sit back and say 'We're from Namibia, we're not professional'.

"We want to compete. That's why we're going to the World Cup."





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