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Ulster ace Franco van der Merwe is eager to push ahead

By Michael Sadlier

The time off was badly needed and allowed Franco van der Merwe and his wife to hop over to New York for their first taste of life in the Big Apple where they took in as many of the sights as possible and came away suitably impressed. The 31-year-old former Lions player from Super 15 rugby is clearly refreshed and eager to get back to playing after the break and is effusive on his first impressions of NYC and animatedly describes being overwhelmed by the place while mentioning that a return visit should be on the cards.

"The break was good and just to get away from it all and change the routine was also good," Van der Merwe says, emphasising how it is essential to recharge the batteries in a long haul of a season.

And while the mood is pretty upbeat ahead of tomorrow night's return to PRO12 action with unbeaten table-toppers the Ospreys at the Kingspan Stadium (kick-off 7.35pm), it seems the right time to mention his rather unorthodox try at Leicester Tigers in Ulster's opening European Champions Cup game.

And even though the encounter still saw the visitors defeated 25-18, Van der Merwe's almost American Football style touchdown still earned a losing bonus point which was just as well really as Paddy Jackson's conversion was charged down.

The smile broadens at the memory of the South African diving over the top of a ruck to dot the ball down for his second try in an Ulster shirt - the initial one coming on his first appearance at the Scarlets - since arriving here during the off-season in the wake of Johann Muller's retirement.

"The thing that happened was no one bought the dummy (I threw) and I thought, 'I'm going to have to do something here' and the only way to go was over the top of the ruck," the second row says with the memory of it inducing some laughter.

"I didn't plan it that way running to the ruck, as I say I was hoping to dummy and it would open up but it certainly didn't, so it was the last option and thankfully it worked. In the end, they all count," Van der Merwe adds.

And with the focus this week largely on the PRO12, there is still more mileage to be had on Van der Merwe's introduction to European competition after he then came up against several of his fellow countrymen within the ranks of the Toulon side who followed up what the Tigers had done to inflict a second straight defeat on the province and do huge damage to their quarter-final ambitions.

Ignoring the hurt of having been fairly easily turned over by the reigning European champions, Van der Merwe said: "It was nice to have dinner after the game and catch up with some of the boys.

"We were just talking about everything except rugby," he states which is probably understandable after what happened that afternoon at the Kingspan.

"We were talking about South Africa and how we miss the country and sunshine," and when he is reminded that the south of France is hardly the worst place to be when it comes to finding pretty decent winter weather, the second row again cracks a smile, stating: "Yes, the guys are enjoying Toulon and doing well."

The one-time capped Springbok now gets down to business and focuses on the next 10-game segment - including the four final European pool games - which are now crowding the calendar before the next break at the end of January.

By then, much will probably be known about Ulster's remaining ambitions for the season with success in the PRO12 clearly looking like the priority for Neil Doak's squad.

So far, Van der Merwe has shown his durability having been involved in every game for his new employers and with fellow locks Dan Tuohy and Iain Henderson still out with injury - though Tuohy should be back soon - the hope is that the South African can keep fit and plug away during the key games which are coming thick and fast.

"I'm used to it from South Africa," he explains over his continued involvement on match days.

"In Super Rugby I played every single game, especially the last few years, but hats off to the management here - they have been really looking after me.

"I've had one or two niggles with my shoulder and hip and they have been really good how they have looked after me," he adds.

"But now this is a big 10 weeks and there are some very important PRO12 and European games coming up."

It all starts tomorrow night when the Ospreys - having won seven from seven - roll up intent on keeping their run going. Both sides will be missing frontline international players but that in no way lessens the occasion nor Ulster's need to be right on the money.

"The Ospreys? I've never played them before but they are top of the log and haven't lost a game so that speaks for itself but it's home advantage and the Kingspan gets fired up for Friday night games," says Van der Merwe with that smile again.

The hope is that the break will have done him and his team-mates the world of good.

Belfast Telegraph

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