‘Life’s good here’

HUGH FARRELL, writing in the Irish Independent, speaks to Heinke van der Merwe about his life in Dublin, fitting into the Leinster scrum and the chances of a national recall.

Heinke van der Merwe has one cap for the Springboks, in Jake White’s last match in charge, but his international exclusion has been excellent news for Leinster. He spoke to Hugh Farrelly about his life in Dublin, fitting into the Blues’ scrum and the chances of a national recall

Liewers slyt as roes’ – The motto of Heinke van der Merwe’s old school in Krugersdorp, outside Johannesburg, is particularly apt when applied to the Leinster prop, translating as: ‘It is better to wear out than rust out.’

The South African has operated largely under the radar compared to his fellow imports this season but it should be noted that he has made 29 appearances (17 starts) for Leinster in the Magners League and Heineken Cup – one more than Richardt Strauss and second only to Isa Nacewa on 30.

The issue of overseas signings has been a contentious one in Irish rugby, given the mixed returns and frequent impeding of the progress of Irish-qualified players. However, Van der Merwe has proven an excellent acquisition, driving on Cian Healy to his best season so far, while stepping up to the plate in a big way while the Ireland loose-head was away.

Against Toulouse in the Heineken Cup semi-final, Healy had been having a big game, battling doggedly against the renowned Toulouse scrum but still finding the energy to make a profound impact in the loose. When he went off to receive treatment in the second half, Van der Merwe ran on as blood substitution and his first act was to help win a crucial penalty after obliterating the champions’ scrum.

It was the turning point in that rip-roaring contest and when the South African backed it up with some storming runs around the park, it was an easy decision to leave him on.

But, aside from his sterling efforts in his debut season with Leinster, what do we know about the 26-year-old?

First up, Van der Merwe is an out-and-out Afrikaner, fitting the bill of farming background, commitment to family, careful courtesy when speaking English (Afrikaans is his first language) and embracing rugby as a means of cultural identity.

Monument High School (named after the Paardeburg Monument built to commemorate the South African republic’s decision to resist Britain’s attempts to annex their country in 1880) has produced Springboks of the calibre of Brendan Venter and Jaque Fourie and was the reason the Van der Merwe family left the farm school where his father had worked as a teacher.

His father, Schalk, known to all and sundry as ‘Oupa’ – the Afrikaans title which literally means ‘Grandpa’ but is used as a term of respect and high standing. And Oupa was viewed in that light as a powerful tighthead prop for Transvaal in the 1980s and early ’90s, the elder statesman alongside the likes of Uli Schmidt and Kobus Wiese, who would likely have earned international honours but for South Africa’s exclusion when he was at his peak.

Heinke grew up watching Oupa play Currie Cup in the famous red and white jersey and it was always going to be Transvaal (who became the Lions) when he graduated to senior ranks.

The Lions have had an underwhelming record in Super Rugby but Van der Merwe – South African U19 Player of the Year in 2004 – produced enough in domestic competition to come to Jake White’s attention and earned his solitary cap against Wales in Cardiff in 2007.

That was White’s last match in charge and, though he made the squad in 2008, Van der Merwe has dropped out of the international picture, one of the reasons he decided to try his hand abroad.

‘My dad played tighthead for Transvaal, he was a decent rugby player and went onto become a coach. I was always going to play for the Lions,’ he said. ‘It was a good club to play for. I was from there so it meant a lot to me to pull on the jersey and I think it is similar to some of the guys here at Leinster who were born and went to school here and came through the Academy to the senior side.

‘Leinster basically came about through talking to guys like Ollie Le Roux and CJ [ex-Leinster prop CJ van der Linde]. CJ came back and I got the opportunity and said I would take it. I knew Leinster were a good club, with a good record and I wanted a change, it was the right time.’

He waited until his wife gave birth to a baby boy last summer before making the move and the family are happily settled in Rathfarnham, where he is enjoying life off the pitch as much as on.

‘Life is good here, the players here are of a high class and the rugby has been very good so it has been brilliant all over. We have been out in Dublin a few times, my sister came over with her husband and my wife’s sister came over too, it is a good place to live. I am staying close to Marlay Park with my wife and the little one so I am kept very busy when I am not playing or training.’

Healy picked up a knock in the Magners League semi-final win over Ulster last Friday but is expected to start against Northampton on Saturday and Van der Merwe – at pains to deflect credit for his Toulouse showing – believes the competition in Joe Schmidt’s squad has been critical to progress.

‘Definitely, it is bringing the best out of the squad, it keeps you on your toes. Against Toulouse, I was fortunate to come on at that stage, it was a team effort in that scrum, not down to any individual making a difference. That is something we have been working hard on all season and it paid off, everybody got stuck in and we got the penalty, it was an important moment.

‘That match was up there as one of the top games I’ve been involved in, the atmosphere at the Aviva with the full crowd and so many behind us. The supporters have been brilliant, at the RDS week-in week-out, really getting behind the team, it makes a big difference.

‘Also, I think Joe [Schmidt] and Leo [Cullen] have been excellent. Leo has been playing for a long time and his experience shows, he is a great leader. Like me, Joe is in his first season with Leinster and is a brilliant coach, one of the best coaches I have worked with.’

As a major, if not defining strength of Northampton’s game, the scrum is likely to have a huge bearing on Saturday and Van der Merwe is looking forward to locking horns with an old team-mate.

‘Brian Mujati was born in Zimbabwe but came to South Africa and played for the Springboks. I know him quite well, we played together at the Lions in the Currie Cup and Super 14 before he moved to the Stormers. I won’t contact Brian before the game but I will definitely meet up afterwards. I think the scrum is one of the strongest aspects of Northampton’s game but they’re a good all-round side.’

One year into a two-year contract, Van der Merwe is well bedded in at Leinster. Although he admits to being the ‘quiet boy’ in the corner of the dressing-room and has yet to acquire a nickname, he says he has thoroughly enjoyed the spirit in the squad, citing the good humour of recently retired hooker John Fogarty and reputed canine connoisseur Stan Wright.

A couple of medals over the next two weeks would surely gain attention back home but Van der Merwe is not expecting a phone call from Peter de Villiers for the World Cup, good news for Leinster but disappointing for a player of his ability.

‘I don’t really know a reason for it [international exclusion] but I don’t think it has anything to do with the coach. I got my cap in Jake White’s last game in charge when we beat Wales at the Millennium but then nothing after that. It’s one of these things that is out of my hands. I just want to play and do well for the Leinster team, I love what I’m doing and if it happens, it happens.’