That levelled the match at 14-14 and the young Scotland stand-off slotted the nerve-shredding wide conversion to secure a place in Saturday’s final against Munster in Belfast and spark wild celebrations at Scotstoun.
Record tryscorer Van der Merwe is heading to Scarlets in the summer so it was the perfect way for the South Africa-born Canadian international to depart the city that has been home for the past six seasons. He had only been on the pitch for eight minutes on Friday after replacing Tommy Seymour and it was his first taste of action since fracturing his hand against Cardiff in early April.
The 29-year-old revealed that daily use of an Osteotron IV machine, which accelerates the formation and union of fractured bone and promotes rapid recovery, helped him make it back to make one last appearance off the bench at Scotstoun and in the frame to play a part on Saturday at the Kingspan Stadium finale.
Van der Merwe explained: “When the injury happened I was lucky enough to have surgery straight away, the Wednesday after the Friday I got injured. I knew it was going to be tight but I did absolutely everything I could.
“Alex Middleton, from Greenbelt, one of our sponsors, bought an Osteotron machine for the players to use, which helps bone healing.
“I went away, had time off for a holiday, but I use that thing every day, three times a day for 20 minutes. A few weeks ago, my scan wasn’t great, but after that my strength started getting better and I’m so glad that I could play a part in this game.”
Greenbelt, the UK’s leading property and land management company, has been one of the club’s official sponsors for the past three seasons and donated the machine last April. Similar equipment is used by many major football clubs around the world and by the British Army at their Headley Court rehabilitation centre.
Glasgow will today be assessing their wounds from a bruising battle with the Ulstermen which required all their reserves of spirit on a night when they were not quite at their best and facing opposition determined to reach the showpiece occasion on their home turf.
Skipper Al Kellock, in his last Scotstoun appearance before retiring, and hooker Fraser Brown, both left the fray with head knocks in the first half.
After the game, Townsend admitted his heart was in his mouth for that late Russell conversion even more than would be expected due to the fear of extra time with bodies fast running out. Bath-bound Fijian wing Niko Matawalu, who was also making his final Scotstoun appearance, was described as being “on one leg” when he was replaced by Duncan Weir with a couple of minutes left.
The other news expected today is the all-important announcement on who will referee the final. The Glasgow-Ulster semi-final was officiated by Ireland’s George Clancy, though, in the end, it was the men from the northern province who were cursing the decision, albeit by the TMO, to award Glasgow the crucial penalty which led to their try. Ulster skipper Rory Best was scathing about what he perceived to be a dive by Matawalu.
The favourite for Saturday’s showdown with Munster, who edged out Ospreys at Thomond Park in the second semi-final, would be Nigel Owens, the highly-respected Welsh referee who took charge of his 126th competition match in Limerick.
Van der Merwe, meanwhile, described the emotions after his dream send-off. “If you saw me afterwards, I was an absolute mess,” he said. “It meant everything to me. Glasgow has been my home for the past six years. I’ve lived here longer than I lived in Canada. My wife is here, my little girl was born here. There is great support, a great bunch of guys, great staff, great coaches, everything. I couldn’t speak more about this club and I’m just glad to have played a part in it.”
The tension of conversion was almost too much to bear and he said: “I didn’t even look at it. I couldn’t look. I looked at the grass, looked at the ground and just listened for the crowd. I don’t like those kind of things.
“I’m so glad that Finn made that kick. He’s a young guy, with all that pressure on his head. It just shows the quality of this team.”
Van der Merwe said the refusal to be beaten spoke volumes of the character within the squad.
The 26-times capped Canada wing added: “I think that great teams are teams that, when things don’t go their way, like in most of that game when we were never really in the lead, it speaks volumes that we hung in there, kept it close and just waited for that momentum shift in the game and then capitalised on it.
“The message I had to bring on when I came off the bench was for the players just to keep enjoying it. For a lot of guys, it was their last game in Glasgow at Scotstoun, so they had to keep enjoying it. We were quite stiff about everything, too worried about the next play.
“In that last five minutes you could hear the crowd getting louder and louder and louder. You hear that on the field and we managed to put together a few phases. We knew their defence would get tight, and Finn put an absolutely amazing ball [the scoring pass] over the top.”
There were more late nerves to negotiate when, with time up, Stuart Hogg’s penalty drifted wide and gave Ulster one last chance to run from deep.
“Your heart kind of drops,” recalled Van der Merwe. “But as soon as they knocked it on, I turned to the main stand and I was just ecstatic. It was absolutely amazing. The only other time I’ve had that feeling was playing for Canada in the World Cup and we beat Tonga, my first victory at World Cup. After that, it all just flooded through. I couldn’t hold it together.
“I had said, even if the hand wasn’t ready, I wanted to play this game. Just get me clear. I couldn’t leave this amazing town and those amazing supporters without signing off.”
There is now one more game to go and Van der Merwe insists merely making the final won’t be enough. “From the start of this year, our goal has been to be the first Scottish team to win this title. You can’t be shy about it, you have to believe. Like our slogan says, ‘whatever it takes’. That will happen this week.”
Coach Gregor Townsend believes the experience of last year, when the Warriors lost the final to Leinster in Dublin, should help them when they cross the Irish Sea once more and hope to go one better. “We’ve had the experience of playing in a final so that should help,” said Townsend. “It certainly helps me as a coach. We know we’ll have to play a lot better than [the semi-final]. Against Munster it might not be that neutral a venue but we had 4,000 supporters at the RDS last year and, hopefully, we have a similar kind of support in Belfast and they make some noise.”