Franco van der Merwe doesn’t beat about the bush. The 2019/20 Gallagher Premiership season is proving a very different experience for London Irish compared to their traumatic last top-flight campaign.

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Two years ago, their opening weekend win over Harlequins at the London double header was followed by a grim 25-week wait for a second success. In between, there were 14 straight defeats, some by heavy 30, 29 (twice) and 24-point margins. Grim. 

Two years later, the wait for a second success following an opening round win away at Wasps was a mere three weeks. Five rounds in, they are at breakeven, two wins, two losses and a draw at Bristol – a twelve-point haul they are confidently looking to add to on Sunday when struggling Bath visit the Madejski. Sweet.

“We have had a few good results go our way and are very happy about it,” said the veteran South African lock to RugbyPass, reflecting on a promising lift-off in sharp contrast to last time out when a measly three wins and 22 points were snaffled across an entire 22-match campaign. 

“The spirits are pretty good at the moment but it has only been five games into the Premiership. We’re definitely not going to get ahead of ourselves. We said from the beginning we will fight for every point every week.”

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They are. Van der Merwe doesn’t speak ill of the 2017/18 London Irish calamity. After all, he was the skipper and it fell to him to keep lifting the sombre mood. 

But Premiership business is very different now with Declan Kidney at the helm in charge of an expensively assembled squad of household names such as Waisake Naholo, Adam Coleman, Paddy Jackson and the yet-to-feature Sean O’Brien. 

The project could easily fall flat on its face despite the immense individual talent on the roster. However, despite all the multiple nationalities, it’s somehow clicking on the pitch, breeding optimism that this is potentially a season of mid-season security, not one of getting sucked into another treacherous battle for survival.

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“We have a great squad,” agreed van der Merwe readily. “We have had about ten great world-class players coming in. They really slotted in easy. It is because we have got such a good culture and seeing them play on the weekend, you can see the experience coming through.

“It’s small things, like a high pressured situation. That is when you see the world-class players coming through, you see a little bit of extra class and a little bit of their experience in certain situations. They slot in very well in the squad and the good thing is they share that experience, talking to young players, sharing their knowledge, sharing their experiences with other players. Everyone is getting the benefit of it. 

“We are literally from all over the world and it’s sort of what makes us unique as well because we are a bunch of misfit brothers. That is one thing we sort of take pride in but it is basically just respecting each other, the different cultures, the way everyone prepares for a game or the way they eat their food, or prepare for training or do their strength, whatever it is.

“We have got a couple of socials or whether it is a team dinner or just going for coffees or something low key. It is more driven by everyone in terms of respecting each other. It is not forced upon us and it’s great. You might sit at a table where there might be five different nationalities and then you might sit at another table and there might be ten and then there is another two here.

“It’s great playing with a team that is playing with each other,” he enthused, nodding approvingly in Kidney’s direction for pulling it all together. “I have had a few coaches in my career and I have to say as a director of rugby, he is phenomenal.

“The way he finds the balance between the off-field stuff and the on-field stuff is brilliant. He manages to engage the players in the way we want to play but he also gets the commitment to engage in off-field stuff whether that is study or to find other stuff outside of rugby. He is not a man of a lot of words so when he speaks you listen and you pay attention. He is doing a great job.”

Van der Merwe is long on the go, breaking through at the Currie Cup Leopards in 2004 before going on to play Super Rugby for the Lions and the Sharks before a PRO12 stint at Ulster was followed by the bizarre situation where a deal to join Cardiff Blues was written off before he even got to play. Along the way, there was a sole Test appearance for the Springboks (versus the All Blacks), the sort of high profile exposure that was a world away from slogging it out in the Championship last term.

“It was a really interesting year,” he suggested, reflecting on a very different experience away from the limelight. For instance, London Irish’s average home attendance dropped to 3,770 – a high of 10,106 and low of 2,067 in a 24,000-capacity ground. 

“It was almost like going back to the roots of rugby. The places we played, the travel. It was almost like when you started playing rugby… well, maybe when some of the older boys starting playing. It was a good reality check. I quite enjoyed it and I think quite a lot of guys enjoyed it.

“There was a lot of pressure as well because you had to win every game to get back and the moment you slipped one game there was a lot of pressure because Ealing last season did really well. They played some phenomenal rugby and it went down to the second-last game when we played Richmond away… everyone was just so happy to move up to the Premiership again. 

“You now go to big stadiums and there are bigger crowds, it’s just the atmosphere. That is one thing that is massive. It’s a big change. You don’t have a couple of hundred people standing around the pitch. It’s actually quality pitches as well so even if it rains it doesn’t get too muddy, the ground is good. The facilities are pretty world-class.

“Again in the Championship if you make a mistake you might lose 50, 60 yards, whereas in the Premiership you can make a mistake and it’s either three, five or seven points against you. The small margins start to count in the Premiership whereas in the Champ’ you could get away with it.”

With the club booked in for a long-awaited return to London and a new groundshare with Brentford FC from next season, the hope is they can start attracting back some of their lapsed followers. They have averaged crowds of 4,473 for their two home games so far – 5,324 and 3,622 – but a healthier number is due for  Sunday’s festive fare.

“The brand that we play is really exciting. We score tries, we manage to get points on the scoreboard and you can see the way that players play for each other. There is real excitement, a real buzz among the players. There is really good energy which makes it exciting to watch,” insisted van der Merwe, who starts versus Bath from the bench. 

Set to turn 37 next March, he isn’t sure he will be around next term for the big match-day relocation to the capital. Right now, though, he is optimistic there will be room for an older head in an increasingly younger man’s game. “My contract is up at the end of the season and we’ll see. So far the body feels good so I wouldn’t mind keeping on playing.

“Everyone works really hard at the club to keep the players intact, especially myself being a bit older. They look after me well… but when I am done playing I will probably go back to South Africa or even stay a couple of years longer in the UK. I would love to be involved in coaching and do a bit of farming as well, so between the two I could keep myself busy.”

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