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Fired-up Franco van der Merwe is out to ease Ulster past play-off woe

By Michael Sadlier

Published 06/05/2016

Franco van der Merwe's smile gets wider when the stats are thrown his way.

This season, the recently turned 33-year-old has been involved in all but three of Ulster's 27 games and the squad's workhorse goes again tomorrow with the stakes fully ramped up as Les Kiss' men bid to secure a play-off place when they travel to the Ospreys for the final round of regulation games.

Indeed, it was much the same story in the last campaign too, when the South African second row's trademark hard-grafting and durability saw him play in 26 of Ulster's 29 matches before succumbing, in Glasgow during Ulster's last game before the play-offs, to a serious calf injury which forced him to miss the semi-final back at the same venue.

"If it wasn't for Les managing me, I would probably have broken down by now," the one-time capped Springbok said.

"Still, hopefully we have a few games left and, at the moment, the body feels good and I'm going into this game feeling really fit."

It was a typically sleeves-rolled-up effort from Van der Merwe in the 30-6 thumping of Leinster last week and now, with the momentum behind Ulster, there is a growing belief that they can deliver another performance of substance at the Ospreys.

And Van der Merwe - who will be playing his ninth straight game since his last break from grafting back in early February - badly wants to make it to his first semi-final and play his part, unlike the disappointment of last May when he and Wiehahn Herbst could only look on at Scotstoun when Ulster were so cruelly denied a final appearance at the Kingspan.

Yes, the nerves will be jangling at the Liberty Stadium on what is the PRO12's own version of 'Super Saturday' with so many sides - all of whom kick off at the same time - chasing down either home semi-finals, top four finishes or Champions Cup places for next season.

Ulster need to match Scarlets' result - who are one point behind and are in Munster - against the Ospreys, who have an outside chance of securing a Champions Cup place by finishing sixth, to seal fourth place and a bonus-point win would take the Welsh side out of the equation.

"This weekend has a bit of everything in it but luckily we're in a position where we know exactly what we have to do and how many points we need," stated Van der Merwe who in January signed a one-year extension to the deal which initially brought him here in summer 2014.

"And that's the only thing we can focus on. We can't worry about any other results or whether they're good or bad.

"If we achieve what we need then we qualify," he added, though clearly the players will be informed as to how things are unfolding at Thomond Park and how the scoreline will be impacting on their plan.

"I've never been part of anything like this though.

"I think having so many teams chasing things makes it more exciting.

"You want to be part of these massive games, you want to be in the team that played Leinster last weekend and, yes, you want to be in this big game with the Ospreys.

"You want to be part of the team that makes the play-offs, otherwise what do you train so hard for?"

And when the going gets tense and tough, it's pretty useful to be able to call on those who can endure the white heat of battle.

"And they don't come much more able to absorb attrition and punishment than Van der Merwe, who will make his 52nd appearance on what looks to be a dramatic last day of action ahead of the play-offs.

"I've been really fortunate through my career and I think I've had one three-month injury before I came here and I got it just before I came to Ulster," he said when his durability crops up again with fellow locks Dan Tuohy and Alan O'Connor already having fallen to season-ending injuries.

However, you wonder if he is at all concerned at shipping an injury at Ulster pretty much 12 months ago when he was scythed down at Scotstoun. The smile breaks out again before he answers.

"I'm not superstitious," said the former Lions and Sharks player.

"I was actually talking to Wiehahn earlier this week about that (last season's injury), but, look, if it (injury) happens, it happens but I'm not going to think about that.

"I'm just going to enjoy the game."

And, of course, keep the season up and running.

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