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Van aiming to drive on

The latest star to emerge in the South African school's pack that year was a 'manchild' by the name of CJ van der Linde.

An imposing figure, even aged just 17, he cut a path of destruction, in the process offering a glimpse into what was deemed by observers to be a bright future ahead at provincial and perhaps even national levels.

Schools from the United Arab Emirates and Newcastle in England joined Auckland Grammar where Ben Atiga starred over that fortnight. Atiga would go on to claim representative honours with the Auckland Blues and earned a solitary cap for New Zealand during the 2003 World Cup.

With the Leinster Schools Senior Cup set to kick off this week, for CJ it may well rekindle some warm memories of his first experience of Irish rugby.

A little under 12 years ago, he first encountered St Mary's College. Former Leinster hooker Gavin Hickie spearheaded an impressive forward unit, which included a young imposing backrow forward by the name of Shane Jennings who would, in time, become a team-mate.

"Yes, yes, I remember that tournament well", van der Linde grins in recollection. "They beat us 15-13 and they had Jenno in their squad, so it was funny that all of our paths should cross again in later life.

"It was almost like a first taste of playing in a World Cup because you were representing not just your school but your country as well.

"I had played rugby since I was six years of age, so you could say I was pretty big at that age. Put it this way, I was always the big, fat kid in the group! It was a tough competition against some really strong schools, but it was a lot of fun."

Competition, pride and enjoyment. It tells you a lot about the ethos he has tried to maintain throughout his career.

Of course, featuring in the victorious Rugby World Cup victory in 2007 remains the single proudest moment of his life, but he also shared in the joy of Leinster's Heineken Cup success last year for his adopted province, and it now holds a special place in his heart.

Though injuries have been a frequent visitor since his arrival 18 months ago he has battled back from the frustrations, and since his first appearance this season -- in the Heineken Cup victory over Brive last October -- he has steadily built up his fitness, and last weekend's 55-minute shift was another positive step forward in his rehabilitation.

"I'm happy to get out on the field playing and I hope that I can keep on building my fitness over the next few weeks because I just want to go out and show everyone what I can do", the 29-year-old reflected earlier this week.

"Because I have missed a lot of rugby this year I didn't go on holiday this week because I wanted to maintain my fitness and try to stay sharp for the Magners League games that are coming up over the Six Nations period.





SHORT BREAK

"Maybe I'll get away for a short break over the weekend, I'm not sure yet. Even though we don't have a game to prepare for, I want to do my best to be physically ready for when the games come around."

With the stunning vista of Glendalough a stone's throw from his home, which he shares with Leinster's most recent recruit Richardt Strauss, he could be forgiven for feeling like he is permanently living in a postcard paradise in the Garden of Ireland.

His travels have taken him as far west as Galway, but he enjoys sampling the rural life in the neighbouring towns of Aughrim and Rathnew in his down time. "I'm a country boy at heart," he explains when talking about his choice of home.

"I love the simple life, and I can walk around and I feel as though I'm back home. It's a great life and I'm very happy here. Richardt and I were just talking the other day that we would like to get out and do some fishing over the next few weeks now that the weather has improved. We'll see."

With the public's attention switching to the Six Nations, the South African estimates that Ireland will be the team to beat.

Having earned a late call-up to the Springbok squad for the recent November series, he played a part in the preparations for the international in Croke Park and saw at close hand the progress the country has made, in their 15-10 win over the world champions.

"I enjoy the Six Nations games, and Ireland has kept a lot of the same players who won the Grand Slam last year and have added younger players like Sexto (Jonathan Sexton), Cian Healy and Seanie (O'Brien). So they will be strong and they have great continuity. I also know Gert Smal and he has done a fantastic job with the forwards.

"The quality of Ireland's play has been very strong in recent years, so they will definitely be a force again this year."

CJ afforded himself a wry smile when Leinster's opponents for the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup emerged last weekend, and he is expecting ASM Clermont Auvergne to provide stiff opposition when they visit the RDS in April.

"They are tough opponents, without a doubt. You can say that they might even be one of the best teams in Europe because they have shown their consistency over many years in the French championship, and they are well coached with some quality match-winners.

"I know Marius Joubert and Brent Russell well, and I'm sure there'll be a bit of sms-ing as the game nears!

"Overall we are pleased to be in the quarter-finals because we left ourselves with a lot to do after losing the opening round. But we showed a lot of character and it was good for us to get the right result for the supporters who were magnificent again in London.

"As a group we know that the hard work starts now, both in Europe and in the Magners League, so we are determined to push on and finish this second half of the season strongly."

He has never been afraid of hard work. For van der Linde the journey continues.