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Franco: I can still have big say before Ulster exit

 

By Jonathan Bradley

Of the two Springboks heading for the Kingspan Stadium exit door this summer, one has garnered considerably more column inches than the other.

For all the controversy, hand-wringing and emotion surrounding Ulster legend Ruan Pienaar's enforced switch to the Top 14, Franco van der Merwe's own impending move to Cardiff has been something of an afterthought in recent weeks.

Having arrived in the summer of 2014, and been charged with the thankless task of replacing Johann Muller no less, the towering lock quickly became an integral part of the Ulster pack.

For those first two seasons, Van der Merwe barely missed a minute of action, let alone a game, in what were typically unstable times for the province, but it has been a different story this campaign where he has increasingly become a secondary figure behind the likes of relative youngsters Alan O'Connor and Kieran Treadwell in Les Kiss' engine room.

If the recent lack of playing time has made it seem like his time in Belfast is drifting towards a quiet end, the 34-year-old is still hopeful of making a mark in an explosive finish to his Kingspan career.

For that to happen, though, he knows Ulster cannot afford to lose to Ospreys in Swansea tomorrow, a result that would almost certainly end their PRO12 play-off hopes.

Having endured a season of peaks and troughs - Ulster have reeled off winning streaks of both five and six games and yet still sit only fifth - there is no margin for error in west Wales.

Van der Merwe, however, remains a believer that this could be the side's year.

"It would be special being involved with Ulster and going to the play-offs again but it is not just about me, it is about the team and the organisation," said the man born in Paarl in the Western Cape.

"If the team and organisation is doing well, I'll be pretty happy. If I'm involved it will be brilliant and if I'm not I'll still celebrate. I just hope we can end on a high.

"I have to keep focused on the process at this stage, I have to focus on what we want to achieve.

"At the end of the day, I still have to do my work, my video analysis because if I get side tracked, you're going to miss the boat a little bit and I'll probably not be involved in any other of the last matches so I'm just focused on Ulster for now.

"Whenever the last game is, I can start after that to think about the move to Cardiff.

"For now I'm just focused on Ulster and it's all about this weekend."

While must-win contests just to make the play-offs are nothing new for the province, Ospreys, who sit in fourth - directly above Ulster, and just one point better off - are equally desperate for the win and Van der Merwe understands the size of the challenge they have left themselves this time.

"That is exactly what happened in my first two seasons here and I think we have learned from that as a team," he said.

"Every season it has come down to the last couple of games for us and every single time we have shown that we can perform under pressure.

"They have something to play for too, and if they win the last couple of games, they can stay up there for the play-offs.

"It's at their home ground so it will be extremely tough even if last year we had a decent go there.

"We've had a good run-in up until slipping against Munster last time. We have had seven on the trot (without defeat) whereas they have had a couple of games that didn't go their way.

"But one or two of those have been really tight so we know it's going to be tricky."

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