The Glasgow Warriors winger has admitted that his side are going through a period of transition, but believes the visit of the Scots can play a vital role in preparing them for the Rugby World Cup repechage at the end of the year as they bid to preserve their record of qualifying every time the tournament has been staged.
The teams last met in Toronto in June 2014, in a match that ended 19-17 in the tourists’ favour. It was a close thing, however, and might have finished differently but for the late sending-off of Jebb Sinclair for using an elbow on Ruaridh Jackson.
“That was a great game for us,” Van der Merwe remembered. “I think we played really well and took our chances well. We got unlucky with that call right at the end.
“We had a penalty in our favour, with James Pritchard lining up to kick, but it was brought back for an elbow to Jacko’s face. We got penalised for his bad tackling technique!” he joked in reference to his Scotstoun team-mate. “That was a great day. Hopefully we can get that kind of support again from the people in Edmonton. I’m looking forward to it.”
Of course, Jackson, pictured, is not the only member of the Scotland squad whom Van der Merwe knows well, and head coach Kingsley Jones has relied on his captain for some first-hand knowledge of the opposition. “It doesn’t matter what team Scotland put out, it will be an exciting group of guys with players like George Horne and Adam Hastings, guys who love playing with the ball in hand,” the winger continued. “They play an exciting brand of rugby with Glasgow already. I was coached by Gregor for years and he likes to play that style of rugby.
“There are aspects of their game I know inside out and which I will be trying to pass on to my team. Ultimately, it’s Canada versus Scotland and anything I can do to dissect the opposition is going to help us in this game.”
Having said that, whatever happens this weekend, the key target for this year is that repechage in November. While it would be useful to gain some morale-boosting results against Scotland or their other opponents in the coming weeks, Russia and the United States, the main aim of both captain and coach is to identify the players most likely to serve them well in the end-of-year series that will determine whether they get to Japan in the autumn of 2019.
“We’re still probably in a bit of a rebuild phase,” Van der Merwe continued. “We’ve had a bit of disruption coming from the 2015 World Cup with [former head coach] Kieran Crowley leaving with a bit of uncertainty if he was going to stay on for another term.
“Then we had Mark Anscombe come in for a few months. That didn’t work out. Now we’re back to square one with Kingsley. We’ve been on one tour with him so far.
“He’s just trying to get to grips with how big Canada is: how does he find new players, and who’s each guy that he’s got to contact in every province? Stuff like that.
“At the moment we’re going to focus on just the three games: try to get some positive feedback and play out of that. Once the tour is parked away, we’ll know a little bit more about who’ll play in November. We’ll start discussing that.
“We’ve not made it there yet. We’re still fresh from the losses against Uruguay in January and February to try to put all our cards on the deck for November. We think it’s better for a young group of guys who are there at the moment just to focus on the games at hand and then we’ll reconvene after the tour.”
At 32, the South-Africa-born winger could have several seasons left in him, but his post-rugby plans are already well advanced. While he wants to stay in the sport in some capacity, his main aim is to become a firefighter. “I don’t think I would ever not be involved with rugby,” he explained. “I’ve set my sights on becoming a firefighter after rugby, but I would love to be part of Rugby Canada at some point and in some sort of way. I think I have a lot of experiences I can pass down to the younger generation. I like finding young players, working with them and talking to them about their games. If there is a job like that in Canada then hopefully someday I can put my hand up for it.
“I’ve got my qualifications already for [firefighting]. I went to Texas four years ago with Connor Braid, who was also at Glasgow. We did our training together and I’ve done my first aid here in Glasgow. There are a few things I have to top up, like a driver’s licence, small courses to take to build up the cv that I’ll focus on when I make that decision to retire.
“The Texas course is world-renowned. Australia and New Zealand accept it. It’s for residential firefighting but the forest thing is definitely an option. There are more jobs there. The waiting list at the moment for residential firefighters is about two years, but I could go away and do a summer forest firefighting and pretty much make a yearly wage in three months. You are away from the family, but you might as well get the experience.
“I would like to live in Victoria some day, but I’ll move anywhere in Canada. It’s a great country and every province has its ups and downs. If you go to Alberta you might struggle with the winter for a year or so but at least you’re getting a great summer. It’s just wherever I can get a job, I think.”