Prop Van der Merwe the latest to sign up for Kiss revolution
Ulster's plans for next season continue to take shape with the news that another South African will be joining the side this summer.
The Belfast Telegraph can exclusively reveal that the province have secured the signing of prop Schalk van der Merwe as their latest project player.
The loosehead will join from Super Rugby side Southern Kings and compete for the number one jersey with the likes of Kyle McCall, who is currently rehabbing from a long-term hamstring injury.
The 26-year-old is the third senior player to sign on at Kingspan for 2017/18, with his fellow South African Arno Botha and Connacht scrum-half John Cooney already on board.
It will be a second spell in Europe for the man nicknamed “Hond” after also spending time in France’s Top 14 with Montpelier.
With tight-head Wiehahn Herbst becoming Irish-qualified via residency this summer after three years in Belfast, it freed up the project player position in Les Kiss’s squad.
In theory, Van der Merwe will follow the same route and ultimately qualify for the national team at the end of his contract, although it is expected that changes to the residency rule will soon see it take five years in a country to become eligible.
Van der Merwe, who had to leave Montpellier thanks to a log-jam of foreign signings, has appeared twice on the bench in the opening rounds of the Kings' Super Rugby season, and he is no stranger to Belfast having visited with the Barbarians back in November.
While he didn't play for the touring collective against Fiji that evening, he did don the famous black and white hoops against the Czech Republic in a team that was captained by then Ulster lock Dan Tuohy.
His signing provides welcome depth and experience to a pack that has often been viewed as understocked in recent seasons.
With Marcell Coetzee having made a considerable impact since debuting last month, and Botha expected to further bolster the back-row, Van der Merwe is now one of four looseheads contracted for next year.
Academy products McCall and Andy Warwick have both signed fresh terms in the last 12 months, running until 2019 and 2020 respectively, while Callum Black still has another year to run on his deal.
With the controversial exit of Ruan Pienaar, and Franco van der Merwe's switch to Cardiff, also to come at the end of this season, it will be a much changed panel at Kingspan Stadium next season.
And the changes will not be confined to the playing field with two new coaches coming on board.
Former Leinster forwards specialist Jono Gibbes will assume the role of head coach, with British and Irish Lions scrum-half Dwayne Peel joining as an assistant, and current coaches Neil Doak and Allen Clarke leaving the side.
Meanwhile, Leinster's Springbok international Zane Kirchner will join PRO12 rivals Newport Gwent Dragons.
"New decisions and ventures aren't always easy to make," he said. "However the experience of moving to Leinster, my first move abroad, has helped and knowing a few of the other South Africans in the Dragons squad makes my decision easier."