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Sunday 23 November 2014

Heinke thinks outside Boks

It has been a tough opening slog. The period up until the traditional November hiatus provides the non-internationals in the panel with a chance to rest weary limbs. It's not quite a Christmas break, but there are undoubtedly a few words of thanksgiving when the 11th month rolls along.

For the most part November is a month to recharge and refocus.

Heinke van der Merwe has this week spurned the opportunity to jet off to sunnier climes, opting instead to keep it local. It is almost five years to the day since he won his solitary cap for the Springboks against Wales, in World Cup-winning coach Jake White's last Test in charge.

It goes without saying that Heinke cherishes that accolade as highly as any other.

With the Springboks in town, the powerhouse loose-head prop managed to catch up with some old friends from home and cast his eye over a fixture which has more than a little resonance for some of his Leinster team-mates.

The double Heineken Cup winner is more qualified than most to talk about the dark arts of front row play and with international rookies Richardt Strauss and Michael Bent's involvement with the senior panel -- alongside comparative old hands in Sean Cronin, Cian Healy and Mike Ross -- Van der Merwe is confident that his Leinster colleagues can shine this month.

"First and foremost, I'm a proud South African and I hope they win the game, but I'll definitely be cheering on my Leinster team-mates. It always gives you a boost to see your friends get international recognition, because that says that their club form is being rewarded, and I'm sure they'll do well.

"Both Ireland and South Africa are obviously without a few of their big names but there are some good players in the two squads and they will be keen to take their opportunities.

"The likes of Munster, Ulster and ourselves at Leinster have been going quite well so far this season, so if they can transfer that form into the international arena they will pose all three touring nations a lot of problems."

He believes that with the expanded coverage of the Heineken Cup and PRO12 competitions, there is greater access in recent years to European rugby in his homeland.

"There was a time when there would be very little access to European games, except for maybe the odd Heineken Cup game, but that is completely different now. With so many South African players featuring in clubs across Europe now, the interest levels have really risen and I was told that when Leinster won the Heineken Cup over the last two years, it got a lot of airtime. And whenever friends and family visit, they are always quite clued into how the team are getting on, which is great."

Since his arrival a little over two years ago he has been a model of consistency, vying for the number one shirt mainly with Healy and Jack McGrath.

Perhaps his finest personal moment was touching down to score in the Heineken Cup final back in May, "a thrilling end to a memorable day" as he remarked.

"Growing up, I would have had a bit of a nose for the try-line, but as you get older the role of the prop changes and there weren't as many opportunities!

"To be honest, that day it was a case of a good move coming off and I was in the right place at the right time. To play in such a huge game in a great stadium like Twickenham was special."

Last Sunday's defeat to the Ospreys aside, Heinke is reasonably satisfied overall with Leinster's progress thus far. Citing the unavailability of players for large parts of the season, he believes that the return of key players over the coming weeks will provide an important timely boost ahead of a massive period.

"The squad has really been called on this season, more than any other I can ever remember -- and it's good that a lot of the younger guys have taken their opportunity. But there's no doubting that you do miss quality and experience like Luke (Fitzgerald) and Seán (O'Brien).

"We're going to have to plan without the likes of Rob Kearney and Drico (Brian O'Driscoll) and they would be big losses for any team to contend with.

"We have had a stop-start opening to the PRO12, but we need to learn our lessons and push forward in the next two rounds before we play Clermont in back-to-back games in the Heineken Cup.

"We have had two wins, but again we know that we're not hitting the kind of level of performance that we need to deliver against Clermont. So we're going to really aim to hit the ground running after this break and kick on."

When Van der Merwe talks about his experiences in Ireland away from the field of play, his affection for his adopted home from home is clear.

Heinke and his wife Nicole have been blessed with two sons, Dante and Eli -- and Irish-born sons at that -- since moving to Ireland. "Might they one day play for Ireland themselves? We'll just have to wait and see!" their father grins.

"I have to say that our life here in Dublin is really good and it has given Nicole and I such great gifts in terms of the arrival of our two boys and with the friends that we've both made. It has been a wonderful journey so far for us, which is one of the main reasons why I was happy to extend my stay with Leinster last year. Our eldest son, Dante, loves a rugby ball and if there's a ball to be kicked around or played with, then he's right at home.

"I grew up on a farm back in Johannesburg, so I love the countryside. As a family we have seen a bit of Ireland and enjoyed travelling around the west coast and down south to Bantry Bay in Cork. There are heaps of places to see and it really is a beautiful country."

A beautiful country which has taken him to its heart. And vice versa. For Van der Merwe, the journey continues.

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