The 27-year-old joined the club from the Cheetahs last autumn but, having come straight off the back of Super 15 and Currie Cup campaigns, he aggravated an ankle injury and played just six times before undergoing surgery in the spring. He admits to feeling like a new player, and is not alone in that after the arrival of a handful of new faces in recent weeks and months.
The club’s South African influence is growing in the playing department and, on the pitch, they are following a clear new style under former Springboks assistant coach Alan Solomons, which starts with a tight, forward-dominated approach. According to Van der Westhuizen, named to start tomorrow’s RaboDirect Pro12 fixture away to the Ospreys, it is a welcome change to last season.
“Alan has been around and knows what he’s doing, and he has brought a lot of structure,” said the lock. “Mentally, he is working the guys all the time and building them up, and we’re getting to a stage where the guys are becoming much more physical.
“You can see it in the training sessions. It’s the old rugby thing: the more the players are getting into each other, and smacking each other around, the more you become better friends. I don’t know why that is, but it’s a respect thing and because I’m used to a very physical game I can bring that to training and guys are picking up on that and challenging each other even more.
“Omar [Mouneimne] in defence is really hammering the guys on being physical and the more the guys are slamming into each other the more the guys are getting ramped up and the more they respect each other, which is good for the squad and for Scottish rugby.
“Also, South African teams tend to be a bit more structured and Alan is bringing that with him. Physicality is the main thing, but there is an attitude and a way of thinking about it which may differ to other schools of thought. Technically, there are a lot of things that have changed [from under Michael Bradley], which is why it feels like we’re doing pre-season in season right now.
“We’re learning all the time and there are lots of things coming in, and the guys are settling into new patterns of play. It’s difficult to go into that without giving away too much, but there is a set gameplan and, from that, you play, which we didn’t have previously. It was more a free-flowing kind of game.”
In truth, barring one try created by Harry Leonard and finished by Tim Visser, it was not particularly pretty to watch against the Newport Gwent Dragons at Murrayfield last Friday, but the key was that Edinburgh won and, having done his research on what did not work for Edinburgh last season, Solomons is determined to put in place solid foundations from which a new, more competitive Edinburgh can develop.
It means a more direct style of play, based on the fundamentals of solid set-piece, defence and less risky attack. An Edinburgh strength of the past was their ability to out-flank teams with a sometimes stunning and entertaining wide game. Their obvious weaknesses, however, made consistency a stranger.
Tomorrow, Solomons’ challenge will rise a notch. The Ospreys opened the season with victory at Treviso and a 29-29 draw thanks to a last-gasp Dan Biggar penalty at Leinster. Now back home, the stand-off insists that they have a duty to open with a victory.
“We always knew that starting the season with away games at two of the toughest places to go in the league would make for a difficult couple of weeks,” said Biggar, “so we are obviously very pleased to come through them undefeated. To come home this weekend now and hopefully put on a good performance for our fans against Edinburgh is important.”
Edinburgh rest Test hooker Ross Ford and give Tongan signing Aleki Lutui a league debut, with tighthead Geoff Cross also back. Flanker Roddy Grant takes over as captain from Ford and another new face, James Hilterbrand, is on the bench.
Solomons said: “Ospreys have consistently been one of the top sides in the Pro12. They’re always in contention when the competition reaches the business end so it’s going to be a real challenge for the players.
“As a team we’re looking for continuous improvement across the board. I think we saw a bit of that in our defence against Dragons last weekend, and I’d like to see more in that area once again.”