'I'm ready to grab my chance with both hands – if I get it'
Winger hoping to stake claim for Toulouse clash with big display against Leinster
Rob Penney certainly liked what he saw in Gerhard van den Heever. Here was a 6' 2,'' 16-stone winger with bags of pace who hadn't been given enough ball. And he wanted Munster to benefit from his talents.
After the province had secured the South African on a two-year deal from Stormers/Western Province last autumn, Penney predicted that Munster fans would be pleasantly surprised by his skills, but also foretold Van den Heever would see more of the ball in Munster.
"When he gets an opportunity, he's bloody dangerous. They don't use him as much as we like to think he could be used. Hopefully, he is pretty excited about the opportunities that he is going to get here, though," Penney said in October.
"They certainly tend to put the boot to the ball and chase a lot more than some other areas of the world. But Gerhard has got an attacking skill-set that we are really really keen to engage with. That's why we got him here."
And after two tries in his first five Munster games, Van den Heever has quickly come around to agree.
"Lately I have been thinking the same, because I looked at the first few games I have played with Munster and I couldn't believe the amount of ball I was getting. The last few games in the Currie Cup back in South Africa, I maybe saw on average of seven or eight balls, with a maximum of 11 chances to get the ball in a game.
"But here it's incredible, with Munster I've touched the ball 17, 18 or 20 times in a game. And that has just been in my first couple of games when I've been getting used to how the team plays.
"I think the last couple of games I have been involved a lot. I have received the ball a lot more in the hand and my running lines are good in the game, I am very happy with the amount of ball I am working with in the field. I just hope I can carry it forward and develop on the form I have been having."
Born in Bloemfontein in Free State, Van den Heever later went on to be educated at the famous Affies' secondary school (Afrikaanse Hoër Seunskool) in Pretoria, which has produced the likes of Springboks Pierre Spies and Wynand Olivier.
As a son of a naval doctor, Van den Heever moved around a bit as a youngster, but straight from impressing with Affies' he was quickly swallowed into the world of professional rugby with Pretoria-based franchise the Bulls.
"Originally, I played rugby for the Bulls. After school I was contracted there and I played there for three or four years. Then I signed with the Stormers, and played with them for two seasons.
"But when the opportunity to play for Munster came along, I grabbed it with both hands," said the 24-year-old, who has already won two Currie Cups and a Super 14 title.
The life-changing move was not without its hiccups though. After his arrival at the start of November, Van den Heever sustained a broken hand in his first full appearance against Dragons, which set his rapid progress back a step.
But he wasn't the first former Bulls player to break his hand on his Munster debut – an unwanted memory that CJ Stander has also collected first time out against Glasgow.
"Maybe we are not used to the cold. We go on the field and we get brittle and we break easily," he joked. "I think it didn't help with me getting the hand injury, that was not the start I wanted.
"But I have been training very hard since and I have been trying to pull my weight around here.
"The first couple of days it was tough to get along, landing in a new country, trying to figure out how the set-up works, how the city works and all the things you need to know to get along.
"But I've settled in now. In many ways the move is a lot easier to make when you don't have kids and a family and big responsibilities. At this stage, it was easier to make the move to make a long career in Ireland."
Having compatriots BJ Botha and CJ Stander in the Munster camp has certainly helped Van den Heever acclimatise, but his wedding in June will also allow his fiancé, Elsje, join him in Limerick on a permanent basis.
Right now, much of his free time is taken up by long-distance wedding planning, but a return to normalcy will be most welcome, he says.
"We are getting married on June 21, so I am looking forward to that. We are having the wedding on a wine farm near Cape Town. There are lots of wedding plans to make, and plenty of decisions to reach.
"Elsje comes to visit now and then, but with the visa laws she cannot stay longer than two months at a time. She has loads to do with the wedding coming up, but after we get married, hopefully, she'll make the move over here in June or July."
But before nuptials, Van den Heever is committed to forcing his way into the Munster first team on a permanent basis. Last week he was called into the Heineken Cup squad for the first time, and he is expected to play some part against Leinster tomorrow. Tackling the big challenges are why he's here though.
"I don't know (if I'm ready for the Heineken Cup) yet, but if I keep my head down and keep working hard the opportunity will arise. I'll take it with both hands if I do get it. I'm looking forward to, hopefully, getting the opportunity.
"You can see it in training since the start of the week, the guys have taken a huge step-up in mental preparation. They know what the game is going to be like on Saturday and they are much more focused in their execution, they are sharp, everything is been done flat-out, and everyone knows their role in the game plan.
"Things are going very well this week and I'm looking forward to the squad selection. I have been pretty happy with the last couple of weeks and I have been working hard to make the cut."
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