No more waiting in the wings for Edinburgh matchwinner Jaco van der Walt

Jaco van der Walt in training at Murrayfield. Picture: SNS Group
Jaco van der Walt in training at Murrayfield. Picture: SNS Group
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One down, two to go. The maths on how Edinburgh can rescue their season remains much the same despite their weekend victory over Scarlets, and now attention has switched to this week’s game against Ulster with all the players knowing they have to win it – their first success in Llanelli since 2015 has bought them breathing space but no respite.

Beating the team immediately below them in their Guinness Pro14 conference left Edinburgh in exactly the same position they had been before the weekend – fourth – though they have closed the gap on Benetton to a single point and on Ulster to three points.

That makes Friday evening’s BT Murrayfield clash between the northern Irish province and Edinburgh another of those eight-pointers. If Ulster win, they clinch a play-off spot and Heineken Champions Cup rugby for next season. Edinburgh would overtake them and move into a strong position for the same rewards if they can find a route to victory.

It is the kind of pressure that head coach Richard Cockerill, pictured, has been demanding they get used to. If they are to get among the European elite, they have to learn not just to play in these games but to relish the experience.

It is an attitude that comes more naturally to some than others, and Edinburgh supporters can be happy that one of their key playmakers is among the group of those who see games like this as a chance to show what he can do.

Among all the big names in the Edinburgh squad, Jaco van der Walt has tended to fly a bit under the radar. Even among the half-backs, his partner Henry Pyrgos tends to get most of the attention, but he is a key member of the side, keeping the backs moving, not afraid to take on the defence himself, and a kicker who has slotted 33 of his 37 shots at goal this season to put himself in the running for the tournament’s Golden Boot award.

There are a number of reasons why he does not have a higher profile. For a start, as he admits, as a native Afrikaans speaker, English is his second language and he never feels entirely comfortable speaking in public. On the field, he is one of those understated stand-offs who brings other players into the game rather than go for outrageous options.

He has, however, thoroughly enjoyed his time in Edinburgh, settling into the city where the sizeable South African contingent at the club has made it easy for him to feel at home, and has been excited by the season so far. “The Heineken Champions Cup is a great competition, it is so good to play against big teams like the ones from France,” he said. “It was a great experience for me – in some games I was playing against some of my South African heroes. It is good to compare yourself with the best in the world and important 
for us to get back there [next season].”

To do that they will have to beat Ulster, another club with a South African influence. “It is always a hard game against Ulster, they are a big physical team. It is almost a play-off game already for us, we need to focus on the next challenge. We need to get back in and focus on the next step,” said Van der Walt.

If they do beat Ulster he will have been a key player, just as he was in collecting 15 points and the man-of-the-match award in Wales last weekend, though he was also quite happy to play along with jokes at his own expense after intercepting inside his own half and running the try in from there.

“I was just standing in the right place at the right time,” he said. “It was a case of my legs feeling a bit heavy, so I could not get away. I think big Pierre Schoeman [the 19 stone loosehead prop] could have caught me!” he said, ignoring the fact he was chased all the way by Hadleigh Parkes, the Scarlets and Wales centre, who didn’t make up any ground at all.

Van der Walt joined Edinburgh in November 2017 from the Lions Super Rugby franchise in his native South Africa on a two-and-a-half-year contract. For a long time, it seemed he had come more as back-up than as a regular starter, with Duncan Weir expected to hold down the 10 shirt the season he arrived before Simon Hickey was brought in last summer.

It was a role he had become used to after playing understudy to Elton Jantjies at the Lions, but one he had no intention of accepting – by the end of last season he was starting most games and Hickey’s arrival this season was only a small blip in his run of success.