Friday 23 March 2018

High flyer determined to wing his way back to full fitness

South African import targeting a big pre-season to put injuries behind him

Gerhard van den Heever has been sidelined for much of the season through injury
Gerhard van den Heever has been sidelined for much of the season through injury

Daragh Small

It could be a ground-breaking victory for Munster Rugby in Belfast tomorrow as they look to collect their first top trophy in four years.

It's been a barren spell since they claimed the 2011 Pro12 title for all concerned at the province, especially those who basked in the successes of European Cups in 2006 and 2008.

Gerhard van den Heever wasn't around to enjoy their British and Irish Cup victory in 2012 and unfortunately injury has denied the South African speedster his chance of being part of this occasion.

The 26-year-old winger is on the comeback trail after three injuries that have played havoc with his Munster career and reduced it to just 18 appearances where he still managed to notch four tries.

It was a dream for the Bloemfontein-born youngster to get the call from Ireland in the first place, and he never hesitated in making the life-changing decision to switch hemispheres.

"Munster contacted my agent Gerrie Swart and he told me, 'Munster is interested, what do you think about that'. Straight away, I said 'yes'.

"That's one of the best and biggest clubs in world rugby so it was just when I got the call from them that I went to my bed and I sat on my knees and I just thanked God for the opportunity.

"Everybody wants to play for their national team. That's the main point of rugby. Everybody wants to play for the best team so obviously it was a dream of mine when I was growing up to play with the Springboks.

"Once I got the contract at Munster and they said they wanted to sign me for three years, I wanted to give 110 per cent.

"I want to get myself in the best physical condition and in the best form and when I can qualify for Ireland I want to be ready if that opportunity presents itself," he said.

But the former athlete who competed as a sprinter and hurdler was slow to get going and in his first game for Munster he broke a bone in his hand against Dragons at Rodney Parade.

He came back from that injury and went on to play 11 games, scoring three tries, and although he settled well off the pitch, the man who was signed as a project player still hadn't found top form.

"When you change team, every province has a different set-up, any union does things differently and the biggest shock was I knew it was going to be cold but it was a whole different kind of cold that year.


"But I put my mind to it and I was only going to worry about things that I could change and the way I play so I didn't get bothered with the rest, like the rainy games. The game we play here is the best that brings the best out of you and tests your skill level."

With former Blue Bulls team-mate CJ Stander living nearby that aided his introduction into the culture of Munster. The two-time Currie Cup winner lived on his own from the off but his fiancée and now wife, Elsje, has since joined him.

"I was living on my own because I got engaged before I came over and because of the visa my fiancée couldn't stay here more than three months so she would come and visit me and go back and do it again but she lives permanently here now.

"She's settled in as well. She's made a lot of friends and is enjoying it so it just makes it better for me, my wife and my family are happy so I can play the best I can."

But the injuries kept creeping up on Van den Heever - he took part in the Limerick World Club Sevens event at Thomond Park and that also proved costly.

Included alongside the likes of Ronan O'Mahony and Cian Bohane, it was seen as the ideal scenario to showcase his skills; however, he suffered a dislocated knee.

This season he has registered just seven appearances for the first team due another piece of bad luck and more trauma for his knee.

It was on December 6, that much-maligned night in Limerick where Clermont came to town and dismantled Munster in front of their home faithful.

"They say recovery takes between six and nine months. That kind of hit me hard at the start because I could feel it pop in the game, it was kind of sore but not really that sore so I didn't think it was too serious.

"And then I played on for the first half and part of the second half and after that I stepped off my knee again and I just felt it go underneath me and that's when I went off.

"After that a couple days after the swelling was gone, I didn't know it was a big problem or something like that because I didn't really expect it. I could still run and go up and down the stairs and then I got to the doctor he told me, 'Oh, no sorry, you tore you're ACL and cruciate ligaments, you're going to be out for six months'. That hit me like a slap in the face."

At that stage of the Munster Rugby was in a dark place as well - dumped out of Europe in the pool stage, the season looked irretrievable. Nevertheless in the league they found their feet and fought to take the Pro12 by storm and reach tomorrow's Grand Final in the process.

Van den Heever will have to wait until pre-season before he can contribute to anything on the field but in the meantime he hopes his team-mates will deliver.

"It's going to make the season worthwhile because I think we've struggled a bit but the guys can cap it off nicely on the weekend and they are very hungry to end the season off on a good note."

Irish Independent

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