Ask Canada’s DTH van der Merwe for his fondest Rugby World Cup memory – he has played in three (and hopes to make it to a fourth) – and the 1995 tournament, some 12 years before he actually graced the game’s highest stage, comes up as the answer without a moment’s hesitation.
RWC 1995 won the hearts and minds of South Africans and, as a rugby-mad nine-year-old at the time, Van der Merwe was no exception.
Seeing Francois Pienaar hold the Webb Ellis Cup aloft and the whole country united in one big party, touched a nerve with the winger, raised in the Cape but now playing for his adopted country Canada.
“Right from when I watched the tournament in 1995 – I was only nine at the time, but I still have vivid memories of where I was when the matches were on – it has been my dream to play in a World Cup, and I have been lucky enough to do it three times," he said.
“I went to Newlands to watch South Africa play Australia and I remember watching games in a beach house with family and friends.
“Even small things like The World in Union song stick in my mind.”
Van der Merwe’s hopes of making it to a fourth Rugby World Cup rest on Canada winning the RWC 2019 repechage tournament, which gets underway in Marseille on Sunday.
Given their Rugby World Cup pedigree – Canada have appeared in all eight editions to date – the North Americans will start out as favourites to claim the 20th and final qualification ticket ahead of Hong Kong, Germany and first-round opponents Kenya.
“Obviously, you’ve got to be at the right age to get to four World Cups and you’ve got to be injury-free during that time as well, so luck has been on my side and I am grateful for that.
“Whatever happens, I’ve had one hell of a career and I am really proud of it but ultimately I would do anything to go to my fourth World Cup and represent Canada.
“Every time I think about this Japan World Cup it gives me an extra drive to give my best for the team. It would be a dream to play in it.”
Experience tells us that Van der Merwe will have a major say on whether the Canucks get to Japan or not – he is their all-time leading try-scorer with 32 from 52 tests and scored a try in every pool game at the last Rugby World Cup in England.
The 32-year-old has scored six tries at a rate of one every other game at Rugby World Cups and is only two appearances short of matching Jamie Cudmore and Rod Snow as Canada's most experienced player at this level.
A brace in the final leg of the Americas 2 qualifier against Uruguay back in February, a 32-31 defeat that left Canada taking, what they hope, is only a temporary diversion on the road to Japan, was another indication of his finishing prowess.
“It is a tough position for us to be in. A lot of people have been talking about our losses and been quite negative about Canadian rugby since the last World Cup. And now there is added pressure on us trying to get to the next World Cup. Everyone is highly aware of it and hopefully we can perform as well as possible and still do the job,” he said.
Full Time: Canada holds on for a 35-12 win in Coventry in their second game of the Autumn Tour.— Rugby Canada (@RugbyCanada) November 5, 2018
Thanks to both @OURFCblues & @CoventryRugby for the warm-up match-ups. Next up, Canada faces @OfficialKRU on Sunday to open the #RWC2019 repechage in Marseille! #RugbyCA #RC15s pic.twitter.com/Xg0UUClFzf
In the current Rugby World Cup cycle, Canada have slipped five places to 23rd in the World Rugby Rankings but Van der Merwe, who moved to the country when he was 14, says there have been mitigating circumstances.
“If you scrape everything back to the bare bones, our development as people and rugby players has had to start over again in this RWC cycle.
“Kieran Crowley left six months after the World Cup ended, Mark Anscombe was brought in and he left after a few months and Kingsley (Jones) came in late and is now remoulding the team.
“It’s the consistency of having one person, one voice. It is about the coach putting the game plan in place and making sure everyone is comfortable with it.
“Every coach has their own strategies that they’d like to implement, and it takes some longer than others to get it right.”
Victories against Oxford University and Coventry while on tour in England, on the back of Canada A’s win over their Tongan counterparts at the World Rugby Americas Pacific Challenge last month, have boosted confidence ahead of the Canucks’ opening game in the repechage against Kenya on Sunday. While the return of key personnel such as Matt Evans, Ciaran Hearn, Jamie Mackenzie and Conor Trainor from long-term injuries has also helped raise spirits.
“I think we’re in a better place. We‘ve played a few more games now as a group, certainly in terms of the home-based players, with the Americas Rugby Championship, the tour to France with games against Clermont and Castres, the June series and the Americas Pacific Challenge, and the recent wins have helped build a bit of confidence.
“I think we all have the ability to play at the top level, it is just a case of bringing that all together.”