Thursday 14 December 2017

Playing for Ireland my ultimate goal – Van den Heever

Springbok import aims to make mark in Munster en route to international stage

6 May 2014; briefing ahead of their Celtic League 2013/14, Round 22, game against Ulster on Saturday.
6 May 2014; briefing ahead of their Celtic League 2013/14, Round 22, game against Ulster on Saturday.
Gerhard van den Heever
David Kelly

David Kelly

For all the angst-ridden ennui among Munster supporters at the lack of pedigree signings, perhaps Paul O'Connell hit on something this week when he spoke about the players already at the club.

"We have some who will become household names," he declared.

In Gerhard van den Heever, Munster already have a sparkling gem in their midst. His lustre may have faded since being hailed as the next Bryan Habana after succeeding him at the Bulls; his nickname 'Shadow' had become an all too apt sobriquet. Then again, few could live up to such exalted expectations.

Van den Heever (pictured) was always in a hurry – after all, this is a guy who once ran the 110m hurdles in a South African record of 13.8 seconds in school, also clocking 20.9 for the 200m. His reputation back home stalled, however. At one stage, particularly after a stunning eight-try Super Rugby salvo in 2010, France's big guns were in the market for him.

Instead, he switched to the Stormers a year later – oddly, given Habana had made the same move before him. His form slid, but, still, he began 2013 declaring his commitment to breaking into South Africa's first 15.

He ended it nursing a broken bone in the hitherto unfamiliar surrounds of suburban Limerick.

Not the most auspicious augury for someone who had suddenly switched his allegiance from green and gold to green; after three years here, much to the chagrin of many Irish supporters, he will qualify to play for his newly adopted country.

"The ultimate goal for me is to qualify to be accepted in the Ireland squad," he says ahead of the low-key inter-provincial send-off to the regular season against Ulster in Limerick.

"Western Province (his Currie Cup outfit) wanted to renew my contract, but in Ireland there was a three-year contract. So I thought it was much better for my future to come here and play the best rugby I can.

"It's an expansive game for the weather we play in, so it's exciting rugby each week and it's not just trucking-up rugby. It's testing the guys' skills and bringing out the best of you."

Despite that injury misfortune on his debut against the Dragons at the end of November, the 25-year-old has made enough of an impact in recent months to indicate that he could be a potent force in a Munster back line that will shed both their first-choice centres at season's end.

"It wasn't the start I really wanted," he admits.

"And I struggled in a few games. I didn't play the rugby I wanted. The last few games, I've got a lot of ball carries and I got a lot of gain lines, so I was chuffed with that. I can only get better from here."

His growing band of supporters share that incipient enthusiasm. Indeed, another departing figure, head coach Rob Penney, indicates that the player could be an option for the outside centre conundrum facing his successor, Anthony Foley.

"He's going to be a terrific footballer," enthuses Penney of a player who, for those who haven't seen much of him, resembles George North in physical appearance – he's just much, much quicker.

"He's shown a lot more than we expected. We were happy when we recruited him as a longer term to medium term prospect.

"He's been given some really clear work-ons, a lot like we did with CJ Stander. You have got to earn the right to get the jersey on, you can't just be given it."

Penney would seem to be alluding to some defensive issues, areas of Van den Heever's game which have not always necessarily been top of his to-do list; such weaknesses will not be absorbed in a culture like Munster's.

"He's done some things in games of late that are just indicators of where he can get to and he's just got to progress," adds Penney.

FANTASTIC

"But he can be a fantastic player for a long time given his age profile and given his athleticism. He's just got to put consistent performances in and the rewards will come."

And a 13 option? "Yeah, potentially," concedes Penney. "He's had a few runs there, certainly long-term I'd envisage that would be the case."

The player himself wouldn't be averse to the prospect, albeit one presumes he would need to seriously work on the defensive side of his game and his attitude at the breakdown.

"It is an opportunity for me to broaden my horizons at 13," he agrees. "And I think it would be a nice experience, a nice challenge for me to get a few chances at 13.

"I just have to get the chance and see what I can do in the position. It's just a matter of self-belief and discipline to make a success of yourself here.

"CJ and BJ (Botha) took me under their wing and made me very welcome here in Limerick and we have a lot of barbeques on Sundays if the weather holds up.

"There were a nice couple of Sundays where we had a BBQ. They keep me in tune with the team and tell me all the traditions and what the players like and what the people are like, so it's been quite easy to settle in for me."

He gets married in Cape Town next month, but firstly he aims to finish this campaign on a high.

"I'm a bit frustrated with my performances at the minute. I don't think I'm playing the best rugby I can.

"I'm not blaming injuries, because that's stupid stuff. I'll just keep on working hard to be the best I can. I want to make a difference when I get the ball in my hand."

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