Ulster’s big Springbok lock Franco van der Merwe knows the score. With second-row partners dropping like flies, he knows he will have to step up to the plate in what will be his first taste of European rugby when Neil Doak’s men head to Welford Road to face the Leicester Tigers.
With the injured Dan Tuohy and Iain Henderson long-term absentees and now the banned Alan O’Connor sidelined for three weeks, Lewis Stevenson packs down alongside Van der Merwe for his first start this season.
The promotion of Stevenson is one of three changes from that win over Glasgow last week with Andrew Trimble absent due to a toe injury, Craig Gilroy returning to the left wing and Tommy Bowe switching to the right. Ireland fly-half Paddy Jackson returns to number 10 in place of Ian Humphreys who drops out of the match-day squad.
Meanwhile, van der Merwe is philosophical about Ulster’s unfortunate time with second rows. “I don’t know what’s going on with the locks but there have been a lot of injuries and unfortunate things as well.
“I will definitely have to step it up now. We just have to get on with it,” laughs the 31-year-old former Springbok who knows the deal as far as the Champions Cup is concerned.
“As far as I’m concerned this is the real business end of the game at club level here. This is what I want, my first game in Europe.
“It’s funny when back in the day I used to know all the teams, but it is strange to see different opposition, and it’s good to measure yourself against someone you haven’t played against before.
“They are definitely a side that plays well at home. I’ve been told about their history and I know it is going to be very tough. I know they will be ready for us. They will have seen our game against Glasgow and know what we will bring.”
Van der Merwe has settled in well into life in Belfast.
“I’m really enjoying life here and I have found that it is now becoming easier to express myself within the team.
“The coaches have given me plenty of rope to control things in the line-out and do other things.”
The injuries mean that Van der Merwe has seen more action than any other Ulster player during the season’s opening weeks but he has been happy to rack up the minutes.
“Playing Super Rugby, I’ve been used to playing between 60 minutes to 80 minutes every game and it’s nice to be as well managed as we are over here.
“They really look after you and I can’t complain about anything. I’ve been enjoying playing every game.
“There was a bit of a rocky start for us, but it is slowly getting together. Certainly we showed last weekend against Glasgow that we are on track and want to continue to play that way, particularly in defence.
“I think looking back from pre-season until now we have really grown as a team and got together. We will now have to show it against the Tigers.”
ULSTER: L Ludik; T Bowe, J Payne, S McCloskey, C Gilroy; P Jackson, P Marshall; A Warwick, R Best (capt), W Herbst, L Stevenson, F vd Merwe, R Diack, C Henry, N Williams. Replacements: R Herring, C Black, D Fitzpatrick, C Ross, R Wilson, M Heaney, S Olding, D Cave.
- Before last season’s fixtures between these sides in the Heineken Cup, the previous four games saw an average winning margin of 30 points (two wins apiece). Ulster have won the two games since, with Leicester picking up losing bonus points.
- Ulster won all six pool games last season.
- Ulster averaged the fewest penalties conceded in the competition last season (8.3).
- Darren Cave assisted four tries in the tournament last season, only Conor Murray (5) assisted more.
- Julian Salvi made 83 tackles last season, only three players made more and all played more games.
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