Having done his part to get Canada to the Rugby World Cup at the last minute, veteran winger DTH van der Merwe wants to help his country qualify for the next one.
That means beating Italy in Pool B on Thursday and then Namibia, which should be enough to gain qualification for 2023 in a strong group featuring New Zealand and South Africa.
“We had a bit of goal-setting and that’s definitely one of our goals, to qualify for the next World Cup,” van der Merwe said. “It’s been a tough (past) four years.”
A try against Italy would make him only the second player to score in five straight World Cup matches along with the late New Zealand great Jonah Lomu.
The 33-year-old van der Merwe, who emigrated from South Africa as a teen, scored in all four matches at the last World Cup. But they were all lost – including a narrow defeat to Italy – making it the first time Canada was beaten in every game at a World Cup.
“I’ve got some really good memories of it on the personal performance side of things, but nothing for me gets measured on my personal accolades. It’s more about what happens with the team,” he said. “Bittersweet is probably the best way to sum up that World Cup.”
Van der Merwe is appearing in his fourth World Cup and almost didn’t make this one – because Canada had to play in a three-match repechage tournament to qualify.
He made the difference – albeit against mediocre opposition – by scoring two tries as Canada beat Hong Kong 27-10 to become the last team through to Japan. He sealed victory with a surging run down the left flank, breaking three tackles before lunging over the line under November rain in Marseille.
He was mobbed by his whooping teammates and with good reason, for Canada upheld its record of appearing at every World Cup and likely avoided a perilous financial situation. As a senior player, and a proven finisher the others look up to, van der Merwe perhaps felt the weight of expectation even more than his teammates.
“It was a big fright. There was a lot of pressure on us,” he said. “The future of the youngsters in the grassroots levels for Rugby Canada was at stake in that game. Those are things that are going through your mind, not just the money, but where the program would be if we didn’t make it to a World Cup, the funding we’d lose.”
Qualification came as a huge relief to a Canada side which has chopped and changed coaches regularly since the 2015 World Cup.
“A lot of disruption, which has not been ideal, and we made (Canada’s rugby) union aware that we’re not happy about that,” said van der Merwe, who has spent more than a decade scoring tries in the fields of Wales, England and Scotland for Scarlets, Newcastle Falcons and Glasgow Warriors.
Now with Welshman Kingsley Jones in charge of Canada since 2017, there has been some stability.
“This time around we’ve got a good balance of youth and older guys,” van der Merwe said. “The older guys can probably put a cap on the excitement and be a bit more level-headed, and you can use the youth to be exuberant and just play without fear.”
One of the veterans is prop Hubert Buydens, who at nearly 38 is the third-oldest Canadian to feature at a Rugby World Cup after Mark Cardinal and Spencer McTavish.
Buydens and van der Merwe were both on the field eight years ago in New Zealand, when Canada beat Tonga 25-20 for its previous World Cup win.
Van der Merwe didn’t score in that game, but fully intends to extend his national record of six World Cup tries in Fukuoka on Thursday.
Two more tries will take him up to 200 points for Canada.