ULSTER HAVE REPLACED a 34-year-old South African lock [6' 7" and just under 18st] with a 31-year-old South African lock [6' 6" and just over 18st] but the new arrival has more than a physical gap to replace.
After four seasons at Ravenhill, club captain Johann Muller retired from Ulster in May. A third consecutive season of promise ended in disappointment as his team were knocked out in the respective quarters and semis of the Heineken Cup and Pro12.
Franco van der Merwe arrived from South Africa, via Super Rugby’s Lions, at the beginning of the week and admits the recent spell of good weather has helped him to settle in. He told the province’s website, “Moving out of South Africa to somewhere totally new is the biggest step of my career.
“My wife and I are so excited to come to Ulster. We have heard so many good things from previous players, from Johann and Ruan [Pienaar], everyone is just so positive and they speak so well about the Province.
Capped once by the Springboks, Van der Merwe played a season with Sharks [Muller's former club] in 2013 but returned to the Lions, who he started with in 2008, for the current season. An ankle injury ruled him out of his return season with the Lions he was free to head to Ulster for the tail-end of pre-season. “In terms of rugby, there is no reason for me to come here and to try and reinvent the wheel. I can only do the basics. I am here because of what I did in South Africa so I am going to do the same things again.”
While Ulster have promoted academy players, brought back Ian Humphreys from London Irish and signed up promising back-row Charlie Butterworth from Lansdowne, van der Merwe is one of four imports for the new season. Sean Reidy is another.
Reidy, 25, is from New Zealand and Irish qualified through a Co. Kerry grandfather. He was signed from Manukau Steelers on a short-term deal. The flanker, however, has set himself a goal of earning a full-time contract.
He said, “I am here on trial basis so it’s about getting that full contract. The pre-season and early season games are important. The internationals may not be available for those matches with them being phased back in, so that’s the time when I hope to play and to put my hand up. I have a chance here with Ulster and I want to take it.”