He's experienced three World Cups already but the try-hungry Canadian is back for more in Japan
Rewind four years and who can forget that thrilling try by Canada against Italy at Elland Road? Not DTH van der Merwe, that’s for sure, who rates it as his favourite Rugby World Cup moment.
Canada had spoken in the week about the narrowness of Italy’s defence and, 14 minutes in, van der Merwe called it: Tyler Ardron caught a restart in his 22, fed his wing on the left flank, and van der Merwe went on a searing run to the distant try-line, exchanging passes with Ciaran Hearn along the way.
Van der Merwe scored in every pool game that year, four of the 37 tries in 56 Tests that bear testimony to his greatness in Canucks red. Canada’s record try-scorer, he’s set to break the country’s RWC appearance record in Japan, overtaking the mark of 14 held by Jamie Cudmore and Rod Snow (he will match this record against New Zealand).
Gruff Rees, the Canada backs coach on secondment from Cardiff Blues, has got to appreciate the player’s attributes from close up over the past year.
“I’d always admired DTH as a player, coached against him many times and saw how he could influence games with his physical ability and game understanding,” he says. “But having worked with him he’s even better than I’d thought. Which is a big statement.
“He knows where and how to impact a game, and he’s a real student of it as well; he asks good questions, challenges in the right way, and understands the back-line principles we work to. He’s a guiding light in terms of where and why we do things.”
Van der Merwe was 21 when he made his RWC debut, against Wales in Nantes, and recalls acting as a speed bump for Lote Tuqiri in that same 2007 event. He played full-back that day in Bordeaux, at centre throughout RWC 2011, and should be in his usual No 11 shirt when he steps out for a fourth World Cup in September.
I catch him one Sunday ahead of the Pacific Nations Cup. How does the 2007 you compare to the 33-year-old of today?
“I’ve definitely evolved. I’ve gained 15 kilos!” he says. “In my first World Cup I was a naïve firecracker and experienced guys like Morgan Williams and Mike James kept a cap on it.
“I was always confident about running the ball and didn’t really think about my kicking game; now, I can switch to a territory game and maybe more ball play.
“In 2007 I was stuck on the wing quite a bit trying to make my tackles and catch the ball if it came my way. I’m more of a leader now and have more input in the daily grind of training and going into matches. But I’m still just a guy who enjoys his rugby.”
He’s not one to toe the line if he sees injustice. In 2015 Canada led Romania 15-0 but tired against their fresher opponents and lost. Van der Merwe complained about the scheduling then and he’s complaining now as Canada prepare to face Italy, New Zealand, South Africa and Namibia in quick succession.
“We’ve got four games in 17 days, the second-worst schedule in the whole World Cup. It’s unfair. Tier Two nations should get a better schedule than Tier One. There’s a massive difference in player depth and I hope one day the World Cup will take that into account.”
The flip side is Major League Rugby, now providing a precious pro platform in North America. “There’s a change showing in our rugby. With Toronto Arrows, we’ve got 30 or 35 players with Canadian badges on playing at a higher level; the Seawolves have about eight players, we’ve guys at NOLA Gold. We’ve guys all over the MLR, it’s huge for us.”
Having reached Japan via the back door of the repêchage, are Canada heading for a fall? “No, the feeling in the squad is really positive. We’ve got a lot of youngsters who bring that bit of edge and confidence, but also older guys with World Cup experience who calm those nerves down when it comes to game time. We’re in a good place.”
This first appeared in the October 2019 edition of Rugby World magazine.
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