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Ulster Rugby: Franco van der Merwe relishes new chapter

By Michael Sadlier

Ulster have signed Lions and South Africa second row Franco van der Merwe on a two-year deal to replace skipper and fellow Springbok Johann Muller, who retires at the end of this season.

The 31-year-old, who has made one appearance for South Africa, is a long-serving player with the Johannesburg-based Lions, who he has been with for eight seasons and for whom he has made 97 appearances in Super Rugby while he has already racked up 100 games in the Currie Cup.

"I'm 31 and I've signed a two-year deal, and my wife and I feel that it is the right time for a career change," he said.

"Hopefully we can experience a new culture and lifestyle. It's been something we've discussed for a while now and there really hasn't been a time to do it before now.

"There are a few South Africans up there," he added, "so I'm looking forward to meeting up with them and making new friends in a different culture."

Even though Van der Merwe won his solitary cap for the Springboks last year, which came against New Zealand in the Rugby Championship after being involved in the squad for several seasons, his assessment of his immediate situation persuaded him to leave and sign on for Ulster.

"It's a difficult one," Van der Merwe said when also emphasising that his decision to go was not an easy one to make and that he still holds international ambitions.

"I was in the group (the national side) and I was overjoyed to play my only test, but then I was suddenly out of the group again," he continued.

"It is still my dream to represent my country and in one way that is a good thing with this move.

"Ulster are a strong club in the northern hemisphere, and my rugby can only go forward by playing in such an environment," he added.

And with both Muller and Ruan Pienaar having boosted their seemingly flagging international careers through representing Ulster, Van der Merwe may feel that he too – despite being 31 – can attract attention and pick up some more caps.

His primary focus, though, is on making the move and being successful at Ravenhill.

Before then, Van der Merwe – who is currently out injured with an ankle problem – is assisting the Lions in their training sessions and may yet make it back to sign off for the them later in the Super Rugby calendar.

He informed the squad of his intentions just prior to their departure for a four-week programme of games in Super Rugby, which is about to start in New Zealand against the Chiefs, and the second row is still hopeful that he can make a comeback to possibly make a century of appearance for the Lions before he flies off to begin a new chapter in his career at Ulster.

Meanwhile, Ulster's loose-head prop Paddy McAllister is departing Ravenhill for Aurillac, the French Division Two club which is managed by former Ireland, Ulster and Lions forward Jeremy Davidson.

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