Ulster's van der Merwe insists he is no 'Muller lite'
Ulster's latest Springbok import Franco van der Merwe has a simple explanation as to why he won't be able to step into the shoes of the province's former captain Johann Muller – his feet are too big!
The 31-year-old faces a formidable task in trying to emulate Muller, who left Ravenhill after a stirring four-year career following May’s Pro12 final defeat to Ulster, and who transcended his time in the jersey by doubling up as de facto forwards’ coach.
Indeed, Muller was touted for such a full-time role until the lure of the farm and family life proved too irresistible; as a result, one of David Humphreys’ final acts as Ulster’s buyer-in-chief was to secure as near a ready-made a replacement as seemed practicable.
However, Ulster have been in turmoil since van der Merwe inked his future plans; not alone has last year’s captain departed, but so too a chief executive and Director of Rugby.
Into this landscape looms the imposing South African who will be under a fair bit of pressure from the supporters to demonstrate he can follow Muller’s example.
Capped for the first time in the Rugby Championship last summer, the Lions stalwart, who spent all of last summer’s Super Rugby campaign on loan with the Sharks, is highly-respected in his homeland.
And, while van der Merwe will assume many of the line-out responsibilities bequeathed by his countryman, the player is steadfast in his determination not to be viewed as a replacement for Muller.
“I suppose the biggest thing I can do wrong is to try and re-invent the wheel,” he says ahead of the province’s Friday evening friendly against Exeter Chiefs in the re-named Kingspan Stadium at Ravenhill.
“David brought me here for the line-out and that is one thing I can do well and hopefully put my full input into that. I don’t intend to change things that have been working well for Ulster.
“I can see the impact that Johann had on the Ulster squad and indeed in Belfast in general.
“But I would put myself under a lot of pressure if I tried to copy what he did. I think it is important just to be myself. It’s not about me stepping into his shoes, or trying to be better than him. I want to be as good as I can be and that’s all that matters.
“I just want to continue what I have achieved in South Africa whether that be in a leadership position, work in the line-out, or whatever my experience in rugby.”
Van der Merwe captained the Lions during his seven-year stint and the newcomer admits that he, too, can adopt a mentoring role to Ulster’s forward tyros.
“It would be nice if the youngsters at Ulster were able to look up to me, indeed a great honour to be a mentor in some respect.”
Meanwhile, Wales and Ireland are set to face each other in two warm-up matches ahead of the 2015 World Cup. The matches are likely to be played in late August and early September 2015 on a home and away basis.
Former Leinster favourite Brad Thorn will play into his 40s after the All Black legend, who also played League for Australia, agreed to join Leicester.
Lions and Wales prop Adam Jones, who had been expected to re-sign with Ospreys, has made a shock switch to Cardiff Blues, re-igniting the country’s ongoing dispute between the regions and the Welsh Union.
BBC Northern Ireland have signed a new four-season deal to provide live coverage of any Ulster Guinness PRO12 games that have not already been selected by Sky.