- Former Glasgow Warriors winger DTH van der Merwe is set to embark on a new adventure in Major League Rugby in America after 11 years playing in the UK.
- The ex-Canada international, who featured in 61 Tests and scored 38 tries, talks about the "emotional day" playing against the World Cup-winning Springboks in Japan last year.
- The 34-year-old, who was born in Worcester in the Western Cape, also reveals whether he came close to joining a local franchise and what it would mean if more South African sides joined an expanded PRO14 competition.
Sport24 asked: What led to you Glasgow Warriors departure?
DTH van der Merwe: In terms of leaving the club I represented for eight and a half years, it wasn’t really my decision. Danny Wilson replaced Dave Rennie as head coach and I asked for a straight-up answer and I got it from the former. The feeling was that Glasgow were overpopulated in the wing position and my presence could potentially block the pathway for young Scottish talent to come through. My contract came to an end on 30 June but my family and I are still in Glasgow and who knows when it will actually be possible to leave. The UK is really being hit hard by Covid-19 in terms of cases and deaths. And from a business point of view, the impact of the pandemic has been felt across the board. It has tightened up budgets everywhere and coupled with my age, finding a new club has not been ideal. This is the first time I’ve ever gone past the transfer window without a contract. It’s stressful but I have had a good 11 years of professional rugby, so I’m comfortable where I’m at. I’m highly motivated to still play the game especially having been off since March. It feels like it’s been a sabbatical year, so I’m massively eager to still play rugby wherever it may be.
Sport24 asked: Where do you see your rugby career continuing?
DTH van der Merwe: I can’t go into detail because it’s not a done deal yet but it’s highly likely I’ll be going to MLR (Major League Rugby) in the United States. There are a couple of options available to me but I’m pretty close to nailing it down. I definitely believe that North American rugby is a sleeping giant. Although rugby is the fastest growing sport in America, it’s still a relatively small sport and money isn’t as readily available. However, once the league really takes off and the TV rights come into effect, I believe it’s going to massively boost development and new players and coaches will be brought in. The American clubs have already brought in some older, more experienced players to the league. Mathieu Bastareaud plays for Rugby United New York and Chris Robshaw has signed for San Diego Legion. There are a number of big-name players to transfer their experience off-field and they still have some life left in their legs. Although they are older, they can still bring that competitive edge on the field and off-field they can pass down invaluable experience to the younger generation. They will set the benchmark in the way that they train and take care of their bodies. Younger players can look up to that and it is what will help their development.
Sport24 asked: Born in South Africa, why did you play for Canada?
DTH van der Merwe: I grew up in Worcester and played at under-16 level for Boland. In Grade 11 I played under-18 rugby but didn’t make it past the trial stages for the under-18 Boland side. I was a year younger than the stage I was supposed to be at and the talent in South Africa is so vast that you really have to stand out at schoolboy level in order to make it any further. In 2003, my dad, who is a doctor, decided that things weren’t going great in South Africa at the time. That year he took a locum position for three months in Canada. He returned to South Africa in April and by June we had immigrated as a family to Canada after he was offered a full-time position. I was 17 at the time and thought I was the cat’s whiskers playing first-team rugby for Worcester Gymnasium. It was emotional saying goodbye to my team-mates but I was hugely excited to see a different part of the world. Back then I had never flown anywhere. Rugby has always been in my blood and I landed in Canada on the Saturday and played my first match on the Sunday. Through rugby, I made quite a few mates early on in my adopted country, which made the move easier. In the end, my rugby opportunities came through the Canadian pathway. Had I stayed in South Africa, I can't say whether or not I would've ended up playing for a senior professional side or the Springboks.
Sport24 asked: Did you ever come close to signing for an SA team?
DTH van der Merwe: Yes. Over the course of my career I really tried to secure a contract in South Africa. I was in talks quite a few times with Western Province but it just didn't quite work out. I came even closer to realising the opportunity when I actually signed a contract with the Southern Kings as they were to play Super Rugby in 2013. I had my whole house packed up in Glasgow and then Alan Solomons called to say: “Wait a week,” because the Kings’ inclusion was only going to be confirmed mid-August. I was forced to postpone the movers and my flight. Eventually the Scottish Rugby Union said: “You can’t wait this long on the transfer fee and have got to come back to training.” So that fell through. I would love to have played in South Africa because it would have been a pretty cool experience. However, it’s not something I dwell on too much. I couldn’t have asked for a better career in the UK. My journey in Scotland has been amazing, and I also had short stints in England and Wales.
Sport24 asked: What was it like to finally play against South Africa?
DTH van der Merwe: Playing against the Springboks at the 2019 Rugby World Cup was an emotional day for me. Over my whole career, I had looked forward to playing against the Springboks and every World Cup I went to I waited to see if we were drawn in the same pool. With my career coming to an end in international rugby, I was wondering if it would ever happen and it finally did. My mom, dad and brother were in the crowd and watching them during the singing of the anthems definitely brought a tear to the eye. I’m a proud South African and Canadian as well. It was a massive honour for me to be on the field. The score (66-7 in favour of South Africa) was tough but the Springboks are an unbelievable team and that’s why they won the World Cup. Having faced the Boks, I felt they had the X-factor with Cheslin Kolbe and Makazole Mapimpi. Handre Pollard steered the ship and Faf de Klerk provided the spark. The balance they had in their team was probably what made them champions and deservedly so as they were the best team by far. It was a proud moment for me to see them prove so dominant in the final... When I faced them in pool play, I would like to have crossed the whitewash and saw a couple chances go begging. It wasn’t a fairy tale finish but was something special to look back on. I played at four World Cups and am massively proud in terms of what I achieved with Canada. (Van der Merwe played 61 Tests for the Canucks and scored 38 tries). Post-match I caught up with some of the Springboks. I felt a sense of pride walking into their change room. I spoke Afrikaans to the boys and they welcomed me with open arms. I had a 'lekker' chat with Frans Malherbe and we shared a beer and a photo. In our younger days, we were part of something called the Kalahari Vasbyt albeit in different years. It was a survival camp for 25 days in the Bushveld. It was right up my alley as I wanted to be a safari tour guide when I was younger.
Sport24 asked: What do you make of the doping cases in the country?
DTH van der Merwe: I never came across steroid use but it’s disappointing to hear that there have been positive tests among South African rugby players. The media report that there are a lot of schoolboys in South Africa on steroids and that is really disappointing to see. Parents and players are becoming desperate to play for the Springboks and will take any measures to get there. At a senior professional level, it’s disappointing to see a guy like Chiliboy Ralepelle test positive for the third time. (Ralepelle has been banned for eight years but has said that he will appeal the ruling by Saids). Maybe the penalties should be higher from the get-go. Hopefully it will scare players off a bit more. In today’s age, you have to go to some extremes to not be caught because we get tested so regularly. When you play international rugby you are tested by WADA and we have the local anti-doping agency in the UK as well. Sometimes a positive test can be an honest mistake where a player, for instance, ingested a substance which they didn’t know was on the banned list. However, as players we all do online anti-doping modules and know that anything we take is our responsibility. There are no excuses for players to fall victim to something they didn’t know. There is no time for doping. We are known for being brutal on the field but gentlemen off it.
Sport24 asked: How do you feel about a potential PR016 tournament?
DTH van der Merwe: The talk of an expanded PRO14 competition is news to me but my initial reaction to more South African teams moving north is positive. I think Super Rugby has become stagnant and, as a Sanzaar competition, I don’t know if it’s going to be sustainable for much longer. As such, why not look at a different path? Rugby in the north is of a good quality and the PRO14 is a competitive league to play in. It’s been great for us to travel to South Africa to play against the Cheetahs and Southern Kings. Obviously their performances haven’t been has good as people would have liked even though they knocked off a few top teams every now and then. If you get the bigger franchises involved it would make for some viewing! The big four of South African rugby are well-known in the UK, so there might be more of a following. However, my concern is what would then happen to the Cheetahs and Southern Kings? Within South African rugby you don’t want to let those territories die down. Adding six more teams would probably be too much as our seasons are already so long. The men in suits somehow need to shorten the season but at the same time you want to expand in terms of going to South Africa. Getting a different market involved is always good for the unions and allows them to make a bit more money. If more South African teams joined the competition in question, I think it would be pretty exciting times.