KOBE, Japan — As a kid growing up in South Africa, DTH van der Merwe’s dream was to play at Newlands, the historic rugby stadium in Cape Town.
Looks like he’ll miss out on that.
But try this on instead: He will get to play against the Springboks at a Rugby World Cup. Probably in his last World Cup game.
Van der Merwe, the 33-year-old Canada wing who holds his country’s all-time try-scoring record, was born in South Africa. His family emigrated to Canada in 2003 when he was a teenager.
To remove any doubt, he’s 100% committed to the Canadian cause, even — or maybe more so — against the Springboks in Tuesday’s World Cup game in Kobe.
“You know, I’m Canadian now and I just want to do my best on the field for the team tomorrow,” he says. “Hopefully just bring a bit of spark in the backs and hopefully lead by example.”
Playing at Newlands was always on his bucket list.
“But just playing against the Springboks will do,” he says at Kobe Misaki Stadium on Monday.
Canada isn’t expected to win. Van der Merwe is still going all out. If there’s one game he’s been waiting on for 13 years as an international rugby player, it’s this one. Van der Merwe’s never played against South Africa. Canada hasn’t played the Springboks since 2000. That’s so far back that current Springboks coach Rassie Erasmus was on the field for the Boks.
The last time Van der Merwe got this close to the Springboks he was watching from the stands at Newlands as a kid. His family had season tickets and they’d make the hour drive to Cape Town from the farming town of Worcester to watch, both Springboks games and Stormers Super Rugby games.
Van der Merwe’s family still have a beach house in South Africa. He took his wife and three young children back to meet his grandmother in February.
He’s known about this game for a while, ever since Canada qualified for the World Cup and it became clear they’d face the All Blacks and Springboks, with five World Cup titles between them, in successive games in Japan.
Tough as tough can be.
“That wasn’t something (playing both the All Blacks and Springboks in pool stage) ideal for us as a Canadian nation and team,” he says. “But for me then the positive was to be in the same pool as South Africa, obviously my country of birth. For me it’s going to be an exciting day, and exciting day for my family and friends back in South Africa.”
But that’s when Van der Merwe stressed he’s Canadian: 100%.
Canada lost to defending champion New Zealand 63-0 in its last game in Japan. But the mood is still seriously upbeat ahead of the Springboks, coach Kingsley Jones says.
“I judge the atmosphere (in the squad) by the volume (of noise) at breakfast and by the volume of the evening meal and by the changing room,” Jones says. “And I walked into a party this morning in the changing room. Beatbox going, guys smiling. For me that’s a massive confidence booster.”
Van der Merwe didn’t hide his love of South Africa. But before every game he marks down two causes that are more important to him.
On the strapping on his right wrist he writes the names of his wife and three children. On his left, he writes the name Capt. Trevor Greene.
Capt. Greene is a rugby player who served in the Canadian armed forces in Afghanistan. He was critically injured when a boy hit him in the back of the head with an axe after he’d removed his helmet out of respect while speaking to some local elders.
Capt. Greene survived and recovered from his severe injuries to write a book. He visited the Canada rugby team ahead of the 2011 Rugby World Cup. His message has stayed with Van der Merwe and other players ever since. The Canada team named their mascot after Capt. Greene. The mascot, a toy moose, goes everywhere with the team and is precious.
“I read his book, he’s just an inspirational guy and also a family man,” Van der Merwe says. “His thing was just to get back to his family, he had a little girl at that time.
“For me, it’s just all about family, and I wear my wife and three kids on my right hand and Captain Greene on the left, so when I need a bit of inspiration, I just look down at that.”
By The Associated Press