IT was somewhat inevitable which path Hendrik Schalk ‘Heinke’ van der Merwe would take in life.
It’s the South African winter in 1988 and a three-year-old boy busies himself on his mother’s lap while on the ground below his father, ‘Oupa’, is in the closing stages of an illustrious career for Transvaal.
Too young to remember any distinct memory of his father’s playing career, there must be something about the white jersey with the thick red stripe that captivates the youngster.
Inspired by the Rugby World Cup victory of 1995, which heralded a new era for his nation, he immersed himself in many sports and pasttimes.
The wide-open territories conducive for an impressionable child with an eye for adventure. Growing up, he turned his hand to a myriad of sports and pastimes, competing in each with the kind of relish that you’d expect from one cultivated in South Africa.
But the attraction of rugby was long-lasting and, from generation to generation, it was an important part of the Van der Merwe dynasty.
“My grandfather had played for Transvaal and my dad (Hendrik Schalk), who was also a schoolteacher back home, played for the Lions and Transvaal,” he said.
“And both taught me a lot about rugby and were big influences on my life. I would always go along with dad when he was coaching rugby and it was from there that my love for the game grew.
“Growing up, you play a lot of sports in South Africa. At school you are encouraged to compete and I think that the more sports you can play, the better it is, because you get a good all-round feel for the various disciplines in sport.
“Os du Randt (the former Springboks loosehead prop) was a hero of mine growing up, but more recently I have real admiration for Roger Federer because of the consistency that he has shown over such a long period of time.”
As he grew in size he also came to realise the power of sport to unite and the personal and collective developmental gains that could be made along the way. Rugby, he says, was the embodiment of the positive values inherent in life: honour, pride, teamwork and integrity.
It was the reason why he stayed with the sport when injury struck. It was why he decided to up sticks and test himself out of his comfort zone in a challenging new environment.
“One of the things that impressed me about Leinster, and one of the main reasons behind my decision to move here, was the strength and the ambition of the team”, the 25-year-old explained ahead of this evening’s trip to the Scottish capital.
“Leinster is a great club and when the opportunity came for me to move here it was too good to refuse. It’s a new and exciting experience for my family to live in Dublin and, so far, it has been really enjoyable.”
Settled in Rathfarnham, near Marlay Park in south Dublin, talk of his family leads to visible pride at mention of his four-month-old son, Dante, who was born just a few short weeks before the move to Dublin.
Though his son’s name triggers a reference to the great Italian 13th century poet dubbed ‘The Father of the Italian Language’, there is a simpler and more symbolic meaning.
“My wife (Nicole) and I looked around over the previous few months and we came across the name Dante, which means ‘everlasting’ and ‘enduring’, so that’s why we chose it.
“The last six months have been lifechanging for my family. Becoming a father has been a blessing from above and thankfully Dante is happy and healthy.
“I played for the (Golden) Lions since I turned professional and even from my schooldays, but I came to a stage in my life where I felt as though I needed a new challenge and a new experience off the field.
“When this opportunity came up to try a new chapter in the Northern Hemisphere, I decided to take it with both hands and it has been really enjoyable so far. The rugby has been tough each week and we know that we need to improve and become more consistent.”
Van der Merwe pauses. He knows that of the three Magners League games that Leinster have played, they have enjoyed spells of dominance without asserting themselves.
The South African rued last weekend’s defeat in Italy and has a determination to push on and establish himself within the squad as the demands increase each week.
The challenge of an Edinburgh side who will be motivated to overturn their recent defeats will, van der Merwe believes, hone Leinster’s focus.
“The key for all of the players after the Treviso defeat was to go back to the drawing board and take a good look at ourselves. When you play away from home you have to be disciplined and effective in attack and the focus this week has been on learning from our mistakes and looking ahead with a positive frame of mind because Edinburgh will be tough opponents.
“The experience that you gain from playing against different cultures and different styles week in week out makes the Magners League such a tough and also enjoyable competition to play in.” His early performances have been solid since his summer move, indicating a content frame of mind. But he is not one to settle for second best.
His international debut against Wales in November 2007 came in the aftermath of his homeland’s World Cup triumph and gave him a taste of the international stage. But the following year was spoiled by a knee injury which all but ruled him out of the 2008 season.
With his place regained in the Golden Lions side last year, it served to strengthen his desire to make every season count.
“Rugby teaches you a lot which you can take into your wider life, but particularly it teaches you to stay humble and to take every opportunity that comes your way to do your best. Rugby gives you lasting gifts like friendship wherever you go.
To share a bond with a team is a special thing. “It doesn’t matter where you travel in life, the memories and the hardships and struggle, as well as the good times, gives you such a good balance. You can see that level of team spirit in the Leinster squad and I’m loving the experience so far.”