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I can step into Muller’s big shoes, vows Van der Merwe

By Niall Cozier

Published 12/08/2014

New look: Franco van der Merwe (left) with team-mates Louis Ludik, Nick Williams, Darren Cave and Tommy Bowe
New look: Franco van der Merwe (left) with team-mates Louis Ludik, Nick Williams, Darren Cave and Tommy Bowe

Franco van der Merwe is a big guy — 6ft 6in (1.98m) and 18st 2lb (115.6kg) of South African lock forward. Which is a good job given that he is the man entrusted with filling the huge gap vacated by fellow countryman and former Ulster captain Johann Muller, who retired at the end of last season.

By any stretch of the imagination that is an onerous burden; in his four seasons here Muller attained iconic status both on and off the pitch.

Van der Merwe — who, like the man he has replaced, is of farming stock and fiercely proud of his country-boy background — always knew that replacing a much-loved legend would be difficult.

But since arriving in Belfast he has discovered that, if anything, he had underestimated the enormity of the task.

“I knew that Johann was quite a big deal over here, but now that I'm here I see that he's an even bigger deal than I thought!” 31-year-old Van der Merwe admitted.

The matter of how he plans to bring the same sort of goodies to the table as Muller provided is one that refuses to go away.

“Everyone is asking me that question,” he smiled.

“But there is no reason for me to re-invent the wheel. I can only do as much as I can and stick to what I've been doing in previous seasons.

“The reason why I think David Humphreys phoned me was because of what I've done in the previous years.

“So I don't want to try and do

anything special; I'm just going to try to do my basics 100 per cent and hopefully, if it goes well, I can sort of set my feet into his (Muller's) shoes.”

Mention of Humphreys served only to highlight the fact that since securing Van der Merwe's services for the next two years, he has of course moved on to join Gloucester in the Aviva Premiership.

At the time when he signed Van der Merwe, Humphreys said: “Franco will play an important role for Ulster both on and off the pitch in developing this talent even further and I have no doubt that he will be a big success at Ravenhill.”

A lot has happened since Van

der Merwe agreed to join Ulster, for in addition to Humphreys having departed and Ravenhill's name being changed to Kingspan Stadium, head coach Mark Anscombe's contract was terminated.

“I would like to have met David Humphreys,” the big South African admitted.

“Apparently he was here for 22 years or something and everyone is saying only nice things about him.But that's professional rugby and you have to get on with it. Sometimes there are better opportunities and sometimes you have to make that decision to leave.

“Fortunately for me I haven't been part of this year's or last year's history or whatever happened in between. I get to work with new management, new players, new world-class facilities, so so far it has been all new.

“I can't compare it with what happened in the past so for me it's all good.”

A Currie Cup winner with the Lions in 2011 and the holder of one Springboks cap, he underwent surgery on a serious ankle in late March. It was feared he could be out for six months but he returned to Super League action at the start of July, showing no ill-effects.

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