Franco Van der Merwe is ready to see off old pals in European Cup
Ulster player relishing locking horns with Toulon’s talented Springbok herd at weekend
As he struggles through the plunging temperatures of his first winter in Ulster since arriving from South Africa, Franco van der Merwe would have envisaged a different scenario for this weekend's trip to Toulon when he first pitched up at the Kingspan Stadium last summer, but the lock has warned that his side need to give their all in tomorrow's virtual dead-rubber.
Three defeats in four games have left Ulster's European hopes in little short of a terminal condition but Van der Merwe knows that the back-to-back champions have the capacity to add insult to injury in the south of France if Ulster do not enter this weekend in the right frame of mind.
"We're sort of mathematically out of the European Cup but if you're off the beat this weekend, playing Toulon at home, they can make it a very long day for you," said the 31-year-old who missed last week's win over Treviso with a now-healed chest infection.
"It's a world class stadium, with a good atmosphere, and they'll have a lot of good support. They have a quality team filled with good international players and it's definitely a challenge that we should look forward to and one that we are looking forward to.
"It's important for us as players to enjoy ourselves as well."
Embracing the challenge of facing the expensively assembled all-stars, van der Merwe will also enjoy going head to head against some notable compatriots.
"Obviously Bryan Habana, Juan Smith and Bakkies Botha are there so it's three big players from the Springboks. They've been around and are really top players," he said.
"It's always good to meet up with the guys, maybe talk a bit of Afrikaans down in the rucks, but there will be a lot of international players out there that we have to watch for."
While the Champions Cup was a huge draw in the once-capped Springbok's decision to uproot ahead of this season, Ulster's failure in the competition has not lessened the enthusiasm for his new career in the northern hemisphere.
"I'm very happy, my wife is very happy, the facilities are world class, the way they manage the players is unbelievable," said the man signed from the Lions in Super Rugby.
"It's been great."
"Coming to Ulster, obviously the European Cup was six massive games but so far we've enjoyed the season.
"It hasn't went the way we would like in Europe but, in the Pro12, we're fifth on the log and we have to get into the top four.
"For us, it's still about getting that silverware and, it's been a difficult season for us the last couple of games, but I definitely still think it's possible.
"The players we have, and the experience here, there's definitely still an opportunity.
"We're definitely focusing on the Pro12, and we still have Munster and Leinster at the Kingspan Stadium, and the Glasgow game away, so there are big games to come.
"It's very important to finish in the top four but it would be a real bonus to have a home semi or even a home final."
For the next eight weeks at least, the quest to secure their play-off spot will have to forge ahead without Dan Touhy, the second time this season that he and Van der Merwe's effective partnership in the Ulster engine room has been interrupted thanks to an injury suffered by the Irish international lock.
Disappointed by the news Tuohy required thumb surgery yesterday, Van der Merwe has called on upon Ulster's young locks to fill the void.
"It's very unfortunate for Dan to be out again because he's a brilliant player. He's a very good ball carrier for us and he's a good leader.
"He brings a lot of experience to the pack but, he's broken his arm and now his thumb, so that shows you the way he likes to play. He's a tough, hard man.
"The way he plays sometimes you'll get those injures, and hopefully he'll be back soon. It's a big year, with the World Cup and the Six Nations and I really hope he can make it back into that Irish group.
"He's an international player, and that sometimes makes it a bit easier for me, but it will give someone else an opportunity.
"We have some good young players, and some older guys as well coming back as well, so somebody else will have to put up their hand."
Regardless of what's at stake, there would be few better venues to do so than against Toulon at the Stade Mayol.