MyPlayers chats to former Springbok, Lions and Sharks lock Franco van der Merwe, who currently plies his trade at Ulster in Northern Ireland.
MyPlayers: Why the decision to play in Northern Ireland?
I always wanted to play abroad towards the end of my career to experience something different. My wife and I love travelling and living abroad makes our international travels so much easier.
MyPlayers: How did the opportunity come your way?
Johann Muller (former Sharks lock) was at Ulster and when he retired, they needed someone to replace him and run the lineouts. Ulster contacted me and asked if I would be interested in joining them. It was important for me to join a club where I could still develop as a player. They had just finished building their new stadium and all their facilities were brand new and world class, so I knew I was coming to one of the best clubs in Europe.
MyPlayers: How did you settle in?
Moving abroad is quite challenging. You have to “end” a life in South Africa and start a whole new one somewhere else. The amount of admin is intense. We decided to ship our furniture over, which made our new house feel more like home. Our dog also travelled with us. She needs a walk every day, which forced us to gear up and head out in some terrible weather, which is something to get used to. However, the people at the club did provide their assistance and the people in Northern Ireland are very friendly and welcoming.
MyPlayers: How are you enjoying your rugby?
I am really happy at Ulster. They are a competitive side and I feel my rugby has improved since I arrived. I work hard to earn my place in the team and spend a lot of time with video analysis and conditioning work. Ulster look after their players on and off the pitch. They have an incredible fan base and it makes every home game something to look forward to.
MyPlayers: What are the major culture differences?
As Northern Ireland is part of the UK, it was quite easy to adapt. Language was not an issue although the “Norn Iron” accent did take time to get used to! We are also very spoiled in terms of space in South Africa. We have huge backyards and open plan living areas. Houses in Northern Ireland are built to maximise heat retention, so this means smaller rooms. The food is quite similar, but you’ll always miss the South African favourites!
MyPlayers: What are the major differences compared to professional rugby in South Africa?
In South Africa, we play more of a running game. In Europe, the games tend to be a bit slower, mainly because of the weather. The teams also depend a lot on their bigger ball-carriers. The conditioning coaches don’t mind an extra couple of kilos after your off-season!
MyPlayers: Any funny experiences?
With several South Africans at the club, it’s funny hearing the Afrikaans guys try to speak English!
MyPlayers: Any advice to South African players headed your way?
Be very careful when choosing a club. Not all clubs abroad are professional. Do enough research about the club and speak to some of the guys who have been there a couple of seasons. Make sure you know what is going on in your contract. Take the time and read through it so you understand exactly what you are getting, especially when it comes to cars and accommodation. Double check the tax laws and how much you actually get. You do not want to get a massive surprise come the end of the financial year!
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