Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Ulster's new South African lock forward Franco van der Merwe happy with his first impressions

New surroundings: Franco van der Merwe adapting to the Ulster weather and getting used to the accent

Four weeks after arriving in Belfast, Ulster's new South African lock forward Franco van der Merwe is acclimatising to our weather and our accent.

"The weather is the major difference but you get used to it. You have to adapt – I don't have a choice not to adapt," he says. "It's definitely a challenge for me, something to get used to, but the sooner I adapt the sooner I can really, really enjoy it."

The quality of the Ulster facilities has impressed him enormously. Ditto the calibre of those alongside whom he has been working.

"Team mates are really professional and that is from the Academy all the way up to the guys who are international players," he said. "The management, coaches, the staff have been really welcoming and really friendly.

"And some of the facilities are absolutely world-class. I've been really impressed. I can't think of something that's short; everything is here, everything you can think of in being a professional rugby player. It's top class."

When he sought their opinions prior to signing for Ulster, fellow-Springboks Johann Muller, Ruan Pienaar and Robbie Diack had no hesitation in recommending a move.

"They had a lot of good things to say about Ulster. But coming here, seeing the facilities, meeting up with the management and the staff and the players, it is really unbelievably professional here. There is not one thing I can think of that isn't here; everything is here."

With so many South Africans having played with such distinction in the northern hemisphere, he is confident he can follow their example.

"I think if they can make it, so can I," he reasoned. "If you come here and think it's going to be a holiday, you're laid back and don't take it serious, then I think it might be a frustrating year or two in your career."

Climatic conditions mean the style of football north of the equator is much more forward-driven. The onus, then, is on big men like himself to deliver in the cold, wind, rain, wind, sleet and snow.

"Maybe if the weather is a bit better in the evenings or afternoons they might throw the ball around a bit more," he mused.

"But all I can remember, since I was a little boy, is that in the northern hemisphere there's only 10 players on the field! It's nine to forwards, nine to 10, kick, nine to forwards and that's it. Tough big forwards."

Already, though, van der Merwe has seen enough to convince him Ulster have quality backs, too.

"I am so impressed," he said, naming Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble and Craig Gilroy.

"This is a very good back line. All the forwards need to do is just give the ball to the back line – don't try anything funny, just get good first phase, good scrums, good line-outs and that's it; just leave it up to them.

"I am quite impressed with the size of the centres as well. It's nice to have a big centre... even off nine or 10, just bash it up and get go-forward and play with the forwards again."

Following now-retired Muller won't be easy. But everything about Franco van der Merwe suggests he is up for the challenge.

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