DTH van der Merwe revealed that he still gets “goosebumps” when he thinks back to the dark moment in early February when he was told that his season was over with a shoulder injury.
The 33-year-old is in his second stint at Glasgow Warriors and admitted at this stage of his career and with the thrilling prospect of a potential Guinness Pro14 final at Celtic Park on the horizon, the news following the European loss at Saracens came as a bitter blow.
Since then the picture has become increasingly brighter and the Canada wing has made a speedy, ahead-of-schedule recovery to find himself firmly in the selection mix for Friday night’s 10,000 sold-out semi-final against Ulster at Scotstoun.
“It was tough to take [being told the season was over] so I went away for a couple of weeks with the family trying to clear my head,” said Van der Merwe. “It was tough to go into that Saracens game [Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final in January] and then getting the tough result and then a blow.
“I didn’t think it was that much at the time. I finished the game, but then they said, ‘no, you’ve got to fix your shoulder’. I was gutted about that. But after the surgery – I’ve had a few of them now – I promised myself I was going to do everything I could to try to get back this season. Just smash my rehab.
“Coming out of the sling I thought I was really doing well. Then the surgeon said, ‘we can’t hold you back, so I was, okay then’.
“They had said the chance was gone, there was no chance. But coming out of my sling, I had quite good range, and then, after the first couple of weeks of rehab, you have a follow-up appointment, and again after four weeks and eight weeks.
“I was already doing things I wasn’t supposed to be able to do, so she said just carry on with the rehab, push harder. Eight weeks post-surgery, I knew my goal was to get back for the semi-final. The team still had to make it by that time, but we set the goal pretty early.”
Van der Merwe was close to appearing even sooner, in the win over Edinburgh at the end of the regular season, but it was decided to make use of the gap ahead of the semi-final to get him fully firing.
While a number of the squad will be gunning for their second winner’s medal at Celtic Park next Saturday if they can get past Ulster on Friday, Van der Merwe is going for the hat-trick after coming off the bench in Scarlets’ triumph over Munster in Dublin two years ago.
“It gives me goosebumps thinking about it now,” said the wing of the prospect that he may have had to watch on helplessly as his team-mates go for glory.
“It means so much to me, you want to be part of the big games, part of something special that can happen here. I’ve gone to a final and sat in the stands against Leinster at the RDS [in 2014], it’s tough sitting in the stands watching the guys play and we obviously didn’t win that game.
“In 2015 of course I came back after being on the bench and we won that, and then with Scarlets I was off the bench again. I would hate to have the feeling just to be in the stands. You still feel tight with the boys and you deserve your winner’s medal, but there’s nothing better than being on the field.”
Van der Merwe played a crucial role in that historic 2015 triumph by Gregor Townsend’s side, scoring the vital late match-levelling try in the home semi against Ulster and then again in the Belfast final against Munster.
“It’s a pretty fond memory,” said Van der Merwe of the score in the corner against Ulster which was then nervelessly converted from the touchline by Finn Russell, pictured, on a memorable night at Scotstoun.
“I think winning the league was actually better than that. But it was pretty special, coming off the bench in injury time, then scoring the final try. But, in the end, Finn had a really tough kick to get us over.
“I think that season we had a lot of confidence in the squad. If you look back at the games we played that season you just never felt that we would lose a game.
“Obviously we didn’t have a perfect record but we always felt that season it doesn’t matter if we’re down a few points, we can always come back and win the game. That built a lot of confidence in the squad and in that particular game the confidence was at the back of our minds.
“There is a similar feeling right now. We’ve been playing some good rugby, probably better rugby than we were playing then. We probably had the flair from Niko and Leone, they created a lot of stuff but now we have a whole squad of guys who can put their hands up for selection.
“It doesn’t matter who’s playing, look at the likes of [young flanker] Tom Gordon who hasn’t had a shot until the end of the season and then he’s man of the match [against Edinburgh]. He’ll be hoping to be involved this week as well.
“Everyone’s buzzing to get better.”
Van der Merwe has another season left on his contract after hoping to appear in his fourth World Cup for Japan later this year.
“With this time off we’ve had, you get your match fitness with the training and stuff,” he explained. “I’m ready to play. Ticked all the boxes. It’s not a fitness test now.”