Wednesday 21 February 2018

Being competitive on two fronts a massive boost for Ulster - Van der Merwe

Franco van der Merwe (Photo: Sportsfile)
Franco van der Merwe (Photo: Sportsfile)

Michael Sadlier

Last Saturday was right up his alley. A typically challenging evening weather-wise at the notoriously awkward Sportsground meant that it was all about the hard slog up front and Franco van der Merwe positively relished it.

The South African second-row certainly wasn't alone in rolling up his sleeves to help dig out Ulster's last-gasp victory on Connacht's mud-spattered pitch, but the 32-year-old was prominent at the lineout, where he nicked two Connacht throws, while his work rate around the park was also noticeably high.

Van der Merwe's 80 minutes at the coal-face helped dig out a hugely valuable win which now sees Les Kiss's in-form squad fourth in the Pro12 and also a mere four off leaders Scarlets.

And no better time to be playing well than in the final year of your contract with nothing, as yet, definitely known about the one-time-capped Springbok's future at the Kingspan.

Now, struggling Munster are coming to Belfast on Saturday for the first game of the New Year and Van der Merwe feels that Ulster, who are aiming to win five games in a row in all competitions, are now really going places.

"We are starting to believe in the way we want to play," Van der Merwe said of the impact Kiss has had on the squad.

"It has taken us a while to get there. A couple of games back we struggled a bit to do that, but I think the boys really bought into it and you can now see the momentum and the confidence the guys have going into matches."

And there is little doubting any of that after the province managed to get through December by winning all four games played with the back-to-back European triumphs over Toulouse being the most notable and bringing so much to inject some much-needed momentum to the season.

"You can actually feel the confidence in players who perhaps were lacking that a month or so back," added the player who has again shown his endurance and consistency having only missed out on two games for Ulster this season.

"We are being encouraged to back ourselves by the coaching team, and recent results are encouraging.

"Unbeaten in December, we go into the New Year clash with Munster at the Kingspan Stadium with that confidence growing (all the time).

"We really think we are still being competitive on two fronts and that we can achieve something this year, as a squad and for the supporters."

Indeed, should they kick off 2016 by turning Munster over at the league fortress that is the Kingspan - and condemn under- pressure coach Anthony Foley to an unthinkable six consecutive defeats - then Van der Merwe's belief that a decent campaign can still be fought in both Europe and the league will gain further traction as more than mere rhetoric.

Whether he will be thrown in again on Saturday as Ulster bid to avenge their narrow defeat in Limerick back in October remains to be seen as Kiss may opt to give the South African a well-earned break ahead of the rescheduled trip to Oyonnax.

But his work at the lineout may just be too valuable to leave out for Saturday's second weekend of interprovincial clashes. His two steals in Galway certainly had an impact on the game, one positive and the other, though not his fault, not so.

Indeed Van der Merwe's first steal led to Ulster's initial score via Paddy Jackson's first-half penalty after some frustrated Connacht forwards poured through from an offside position.

However, his next leap to win turnover ball didn't quite go according to plan, thanks to Roger Wilson knocking-on and Ricky Lutton being penalised at the following scrum, with Connacht then grabbing their equalising penalty, just after the hour.

Indeed, that looked as if it might be the last score of the game until Luke Marshall's charge and Nick Williams barge deservedly settled the affair in the visitors' favour.

"I think the guys showed really great character towards the end and showed the momentum of the last few games and the confidence which has grown in the team," said the player who made his 38th appearance for Ulster last weekend.

"It was a physical game throughout and we dealt with everything thrown at us. We were controlled and, for the most part, very disciplined."

These days that focus is becoming a bit of a trademark for Ulster. Roll on Munster.

Irish Independent

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