AT 6’2” and almost 20 stone, CJ van der Linde shouldn’t be hard to miss but sightings of the big Springbok prop have been few and far between since his move to Ireland 14 months ago.
The South African arrived on a three-year deal from the Cheetahs in September 2008 on the same week as Rocky Elsom, but the pair’s paths while at Leinster diverged wildly from there on.
The Australian’s impact was that of a meteor’s, equally majestic and destructive and gone all too quickly. Van der Linde’s career with the Irish province has yet to get off the ground.
Now nearly halfway into his contract, he has played only 13 games (Leinster have played 34 in that time) and he packs down today in Llanelli against the Scarlets with only 177 minutes of rugby under his belt this season.
All because of a toe.
No-one was unduly concerned when he first picked up the injury a few weeks after his arrival but, though the diagnosis proved simple enough, the healing process was a far more complicated matter.
Though he featured in four of the provinces Heineken Cup games last term, a recurrence of the injury restricted him to a watching brief for the knockout stages at The Stoop, Croke Park and Murrayfield.
“It wasn’t the ideal way to come to Ireland,” he admits. “I wanted to come here and play and be part of Leinster, but I played 70 minutes last week (against the Dragons). Everything is sticking together so hopefully it can stay like that for the rest of the year.”
The actual problem was a ligament underneath his foot which was torn off. Though he could run more or less perfectly with the aid of an injection, it proved impossible to scrummage.
At one stage, it even threatened his career.
“All the doctors I saw in Ireland and in South Africa, in the beginning they said it could be the end of my rugby career. It’s a difficult thing to fix because there is not a lot of blood flow going there to heal the ligament.
“Everything stuck together after the surgery though and hopefully it will last. It’s not nice to hear stuff like that, but you must have faith and believe it will work out as it must.”
If it happens again, the probability is that there will be no coming back but he has had to deal with other injury worries besides. This time it was a torn hamstring picked up in the warm-up of a pre-season game against Saracens.
Fingers crossed that is the end of it, because there is no doubting the player’s pedigree. A World Cup winner in 2007, van der Linde has played 57 times for his country and can pack down on either side of the front row.
A handy man to have around then. Peter de Villiers clearly thought so because the Springbok coach crooked a finger in his direction last month when the tourists were in dire need of cavalry after defeats in Leicester and Toulouse.
It was, van der Linde says “a nice surprise” but he won’t be drawn on whether he will stay in Dublin until his contract expires at the end of next season or return home with an eye on the World Cup.
“At the moment I’m contracted to 2011 and I haven’t made my mind up about the future. I’m contracted to Leinster now. There is a lot of talk there (in South Africa about the World Cup), but I haven’t made up my mind yet.”
His injuries frustrations aside, he has enjoyed his time in Ireland. He likes Dublin and there are enough South Africans dotted around the provinces to stem any rogue tide of homesickness.
“I keep in touch with the guys over the internet and the phone and it’s nice to see some South Africans coming to Ireland. Ireland is definitely a very good place to come and play.
“The way people play here is totally different to back in South Africa because of the weather, and there’s totally different attributes you can bring to your game here.”
That foreign perspective can only help Leinster and, in particular, a guy like Cian Healy who has also had the good fortune to pick up some tips from Ollie le Roux in recent seasons. Van der Linde has been impressed.
“Cian is a very good player, one of the strongest players in the gym that I’ve ever seen. On the field you can see he’s learning quite a lot. The two Tests he played in the autumn he did very well and in every game he improved quite a lot. I think he can become one of Ireland’s great props.”
That didn’t prevent van der Linde and the rest of the Boks from targeting Healy at scrum time last month, especially in view of the Irishman’s struggles two weeks earlier against Australia.
“Yeah, definitely at Test level with all new caps. Like, Jonathan Sexton was quite new, but he stood up to the challenge, as did Cian, so we tried to target them, but there wasn’t a specific plan just to go for them.”
Healy’s education continues at Parc Y Scarlets today. So too does van der Linde’s road to recovery.
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