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van der Merwe's dream comeback

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Someone made a massive spray-painted sign saying, 'Celtic, we're coming for you - Warrior Nation'. Stuff like that is special

DTH van der Merwe was about to hop on his scooter and zip off to his home just around the corner from Glasgow’s Scotstoun stadium when a frown of alarm spread across his face.

It was five-year-old Nola van der Merwe’s first school sports day this week and her father has just been informed of the British tradition of a “dads’ race” at such gatherings. As an international rugby player – a winger, no less – the Canadian will be the field’s white-hot favourite.

Van der Merwe has a PRO14 final date with the defending champions on Saturday, but he seemed more anxious about the prospect of dashing against a bunch of middle-aged locals than anything Leinster’s James Lowe, Jordan Larmour or Kearney brothers can throw at him on the weekend.

“One, what if I get injured? And two, what if I don’t win?!”

Getting smoked in the dads’ race would be, as they say in Glasgow, a “rid neck”, but family time is precious, and van der Merwe has seen a lot more of Nola and her two younger siblings than anticipated this year.

(Continue reading below…)

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These past three months have been hard, among the bleakest and most mentally trying he has faced in a decade as a professional. In February, he was told his season was over. Torn shoulder cartilage. Torn biceps tendon. Oh, and while you’re out, we’ll fix your double hernia. Rugby is a brutal old business.

The physical aches and tedium of rehab he could handle, but the emotional strain? That was grim. His purpose had evaporated overnight. In short, he didn’t know what to do with himself. “I came in to the stadium a few days after my hernia surgery a bit lost, I guess,” he told RugbyPass.

“You’re in a lot of pain at home. The coaches were like, ‘What are you doing? Go home, stay away.’ But it’s just normal to come in to the stadium.”

Glasgow’s DTH van der Merwe carries the ball during his comeback game last Friday versus Ulster (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

Dave Rennie, the Glasgow coach, saw van der Merwe listless and flailing and sent him on holiday. Off the family went to Mexico, a fortnight of sun and memory-making where he found salvation in the strength of his wife. Gillian van der Merwe is a colossus of the Warriors social scene as well as a keen 5km runner.

“It’s going to sound a bit cheesy, but I was inspired by my wife and her running,” van der Merwe said. “We got to the hotel and it had awesome gym facilities, and every day we did something in the gym. She would go first for her run, then we would switch. It was a teamwork thing.

“It just switched something in my mind. I was sitting there watching two of our games on my phone and it just gave me the itch of wanting to be back. I started feeling better and stronger and said, ‘Let’s give this a go’.”

He made it back a month ahead of schedule, his return coming in last Friday’s semi-final savaging of Ulster. How wonderful it felt. Van der Merwe knows he is in the autumn of his career. He is 33, this was his fifth shoulder operation, and his next chapter as a firefighter cannot be kept on the back burner forever.

But at Glasgow, he sees a team capable of greatness. Every day he was out, the fear that he would watch the culmination of all its toil from the stands gnawed at him.

“Even with my little break, it was tough at home some days. It takes a toll on the family, and that’s when you know you need to change something,” he said. “Dave gets that, he sees when someone’s going through a tough time and gives them a bit of a break.

 

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My #1 support, and my #1 motivation!!! Thank you @gillianvdm Nola, Lochie and Harlow!

A post shared by DTH van der Merwe (@dthvdm) on

“I’m not going to lie, I don’t have all the answers, I struggle. I’ve got my own demons I had to fight every week when I was injured.

“It did play on my mind, thinking about the potential this team has. It’s an unbelievable feeling to win a trophy, and honestly, it’s more about inspiring the younger people, especially my younger team-mates.

“Some of these guys have played a long time and never won anything. It’s such an amazing feeling and you get addicted to it. The sooner our young squad get that taste, the better it will be for us in the league and the Champions Cup.”

DTH van der Merwe (second left) is congratulated after scoring Glasgow’s second try during the 2015 Guinness PRO12 final against Munster in Belfast (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

Glasgow’s great PRO12 coronation of 2015 remains the finest hour and the only title in the history of professional club rugby in Scotland. Gregor Townsend was coach and van der Merwe was at its core. He thundered home for the decisive semi-final score against Ulster at a packed and cacophonous Scotstoun. And he blasted on to Leone Nakarawa’s back-hander to run in one of four tries in the Belfast battering of Munster.

Nakarawa was a phenomenon that day, delivering the sort of cosmic rugby only he can. Everything the big Fijian touched turned to gold. Every pass he threw, no matter how mobbed by defenders or how contorted his body, hit its target.

“The comment that sticks out is Gregor telling Leone before the game, ‘This is finals rugby, don’t off-load the ball, just carry hard and forget about the off-loads’. And Leone off-loaded straight away, Rob Harley scored then I scored off his off-loads,” said van der Merwe.

“We destroyed the inside of the changing room afterwards but then we cleaned it up. We were going to fly home that night but our flight was cancelled. There was some cafe in the airport but it was shut and we had no food, only a few beers left.

“There were some crisps on the outside, so we just took the crisps and left them a tenner behind the counter.

“I remember Dougie Hall sitting with the trophy, Pete Horne playing music on his little ghetto-blaster thing. And then bringing the trophy back to Glasgow the next morning – that was a special time, signing off for Al Kellock, Dougie, guys who had been here a long time. Oh yeah, and I left as well.”

After six years in the city, van der Merwe was ready to chase a fresh stimulus. He joined Scarlets and won a title there too before heading for Newcastle where, for the first time in his career, he wasn’t getting picked and there was nothing he could do about it.

“It was months of playing three games, not getting selected, being told you’re doing everything right but there are guys ahead of you,” he explained. “I was so used to always playing week in, week out, Glasgow, Scarlets, then all of a sudden, I’m not selected. I’m the bin juice guy, the guy holding the pads.

“It’s tough, but it probably grounds you a little bit, makes you see the other important sides of the game, helping the team prepare, and then when you do get the opportunity to move to another club and play, you appreciate how much it means to you to play the game.”

Saracens’ Michael Rhodes is tackled by DTH van der Merwe in the Champions Cup at Scotstoun last October (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Eight months into this torrid venture came the chance to return to Glasgow, an unexpected homecoming of sorts for the family. Van der Merwe is Warriors’ record try-scorer. His influence in the club’s growth from also-rans to heavyweights has been immense.

“Glasgow is where my career started and it’s probably where my career will end,” he said. “I take a lot of pride in thinking that I had something to do with the growth of Glasgow. Coming from where we were at Firhill, training at Whitecraigs in the mud-pit, to where we are now, the attention to detail we have is amazing.

“We’re getting rewarded with sold-out stadiums, fans pretty much demanding the club and the city council to get us a bigger stadium, because Glasgow Warriors and the community deserve it.

 

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BROTHERS.

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“If you think back to 2009, nobody would recognise any of the players in the street. Not that we’re celebrities now, but people know who we are, and we’re involved in the community in different aspects of the game and in businesses.”

This year, the PRO14 final is at Celtic Park in the city’s notoriously hard east end. The huge emerald bowl has witnessed some of Scottish football’s greatest days. Like much of Glasgow, the round ball is king here, but for one day, rugby will reign. These are the competition’s two premier teams and the backdrop to their contest will be dazzling.

“When it came out that the final was at Celtic Park, that’s been a massive driving force to us performing this season,” added van der Merwe.

“It’s about us enjoying our rugby, having smiles on our faces, celebrating the small victories – scrums, lineouts, turnovers, defence, attack. Keep celebrating those things and that’s how we’re going to do it.

“I don’t think (changing style in a final) is a temptation – I just think it’s what happens. People are afraid to make mistakes and they change their game plan, maybe make it more about trying to nullify the opposition and not on what got them there with the 22 games before.

“After the semi-final, if you drove past Victoria Park, someone had made a massive spray-painted sign saying, ‘Celtic, we’re coming for you – Warrior Nation’. Stuff like that, it’s just special.”

Canada is home, but it’s here in Glasgow where the van der Merwes have flourished. Come Saturday night, the hope is for two more trophies to add to the collection. One, a PRO14 winner’s medal. The other? Gold in the dads’ schools race.

WATCH: The behind the scenes RugbyPass documentary on the 2018 Guinness PRO14 final

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Someone made a massive spray-painted sign saying, 'Celtic, we're coming for you - Warrior Nation'. Stuff like that is special