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I already feel like I'm at home in Ulster, says new signing Schalk

 

By Jonathan Bradley

If the way to a prop's heart is through his stomach, then Ulster's Schalk van der Merwe is already feeling right at home in Northern Ireland.

The 26-year-old South African has arrived on these shores via Guinness PRO14 new boys the Southern Kings, signing a three-year contract at the Kingspan Stadium.

He has yet to feature for his new side thanks to a shoulder problem, perhaps a blessing in disguise given how pre-season results have gone for Les Kiss's side, but off the field his early impressions auger well.

"Well, we South Africans love our meat and the butcher is really lovely," said the loosehead, without hesitation, when asked for a first thought on his new surroundings.

"He didn't know who I was or anything, we'd never met, but he wanted to help me. It's just nice meeting these people, they go out of their way to make you comfortable.

"The people, nice people, loving people, they would remind you of home, the South African people.

"I must say, the first three or four weeks I can see that."

To call these his first impressions would be slightly misleading however, with the man nicknamed 'Hond' having already visited Belfast when he was part of the Barbarians squad that took on Fiji last November.

His memories of that trip sound similar to many tourists on their maiden trip to the city.

"I was here in November with the Barbarians but I didn't play in that game so I saw the place and knew a little before I signed.

"I didn't play the game but I did visit an Irish bar and had a Guinness or two.

"I sought out the music and culture, I looked for the most proper Irish bar I could find because I wanted to have the whole experience.

"Me and Kwagga Smith, who plays Sevens for South Africa, went to a bar. The people don't know you but they just talk to you and start being nice.

"From that day it just felt like home and I am very willing to make it my home."

Hailing from Upington in the Northern Cape - known for being the sunniest place in the world for three months of the year - there is of course one drawback to moving here during one of the wettest Augusts on record.

"Well, we have our four umbrellas there," he said of the Ballymena home he has moved into with his wife and two sons.

"I must say, the first three days I came here it was sunny, and everyone made the joke about getting the sunscreen on and I didn't really understand.

"It's rained ever since. It's a rainy place, but it's very nice.

"I'm from Upington in South Africa. I phoned my grandfather the other day, they get 60 millimetres of rain a year.

"I told him about the amount of rain. He couldn't get his head around it, he had to phone back once he'd thought about it."

With so many his countrymen having come before him, there was no shortage of those willing to offer him advice ahead of his first season at Kingspan.

Namesake and former team-mate Franco van der Merwe was sought out, so too Ruan Pienaar, the Ulster legend who made his Top14 debut for Montpellier this weekend.

The province's latest South African will have one added bonus not afforded his now-departed compatriots though - a trip home when Ulster face the Kings in November.

Aiming for a return to fitness somewhere around week three, Van der Merwe fully expects to be ready for that trip and thinks both the Kings and Cheetahs will bring real value to the league in their inaugural PRO14 campaign.

"I'm excited to see the guys play in this rugby and this atmosphere and I'm looking forward to it as well," he said.

"For all of us it is a new experience, but I think from being at the Kings and hearing all the talk about joining the PRO14 the guys were excited.

"They just want to be part of this and have a new experience and a new challenge.

"I think it will do a lot for South African rugby and I think it will be good for European rugby going to South Africa. I think it will make it exciting and will take the European guys out of their comfort zone."

For a man half the world away from Upington, Van der Merwe can certainly relate to that. At least his butcher is making him feel right at home.

Meanwhile, Methodist College have six players in the Ulster Schools' U18 squad that faces Munster in the Inter-Provincial at Thomond Park, Limerick this afternoon (3.00pm). The holders Munster have already lost to Leinster, while Ulster's next game is against Leinster on Saturday.

Ulster: McCaughey (Friends'), McIlroy (MCB), Power (CC) Adair (RBAI), Sexton (BGS), Johnston (Regent H), Doak (WHS), McKee (CC), Stewart (BRA), B Crangle (MCB), McAuley (B'mena Acad), Stinson (CC), McCann (RBAI), McNaboe (MCB), Brown (Limavady GS). Replacements - Dundas (WHS), McCrossan (BGS), Mc Kinley, McCay (both Omagh Acad), O'Neill (RS Armagh), Saunderson (Sullivan U), Finlay (Down H), T Armstrong, R Armstrong, C Larmour (all MCB), H Owens (CC).

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