Franco van der Merwe: Rugby World Cup must not hinder Ulster season
Ulster's Franco van der Merwe believes a strong start to the season is imperative despite the team losing a number of key players and their new Director of Rugby to the World Cup.
Their first pre-season fixture comes against Leinster at the Kingspan Stadium on Friday evening and, with the PRO12 campaign kicking off against the Ospreys just two weeks later, the South African lock will not be using the long list of absentees as an excuse for being slow out of the traps.
"We have to have a good start to the season, especially when the Irish boys are away," said 32-year-old Van der Merwe.
"A lot of teams will be affected by the World Cup but those first few games are really important.
"We showed last year that we played really well at home and our first game is at home. The fans really help us, being that 16th man, but it is a tough start.
"We just have to play well and hope that it goes well for us."
Eleven Ulster players were named in Joe Schmidt's initial extended World Cup panel and, although some are likely to join Rob Herring in being released back this week, those who make the final cut may not be seen until November, while the province is in the unusual position of having Les Kiss, their soon-to-be Director of Rugby, also on international duty.
Having filled the breach on an interim basis when David Humphreys departed for Gloucester during the 2014 pre-season, Kiss has been back as Ireland's defence coach since the autumn but will come to Belfast in a permanent capacity upon the conclusion of the World Cup.
Despite the disruption, Van der Merwe does not feel it will negatively impact the squad while also praising the work of head coach Neil Doak over the past 12 months.
"We're looking forward to getting Les Kiss back and we wish him well for the World Cup," asserted the once-capped Springbok. "He's been here a few days and he spoke to some of the senior players.
"But I think he's got to be pretty involved with the World Cup because it's a really important year for Ireland.
"It's been well communicated to us from the beginning. It's no surprise that he'll be at the World Cup and then come back.
"We all knew what was going to happen, it's the times you're not informed what's happening that could influence the team."
On Doak's coaching regime, he added: "The whole David Humphreys exit and the coaches before that, I think he's really grown as a coach after taking over at such a time. He'll have a bit more breathing space this season.
"You can see his composure on the training pitch as well, I think he's really been going well."
After coming to Ulster last summer to fill the sizeable void left by Johann Muller's retirement, Van der Merwe was relied upon heavily throughout his first season - the former Super Rugby stalwart appeared in all but two of the team's games and anchored the line-out throughout - but is already calling for an improvement in what is the final campaign of his two-year deal.
The second-rower did not feature in the PRO12 semi-final defeat to Glasgow, the result of a leg injury sustained against the same opposition a week prior, but thinks the team must use yet another bitter knock-out defeat as inspiration to end a trophy drought that stretches all the way back to 2006.
"It's important that we learn from it and the emotions that we had. The feeling of how bad it was after, I think everyone will remember that and hopefully that can give us that spark to give that extra effort in the gym or on the field," he said.
"We've learnt from it but it's important to put it behind us."
With the season now looming large, the chance to do so is finally just around the corner.
Friendly Interpro: Kingspan Stadium, Friday 7.30 pm