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Written by: Mark Janzen
Photography by: Colin Watson
Coming off an injury he incurred over the summer months, the dominant Canadian winger has yet to find his way into the lineup with the Newcastle Falcons of the Aviva Premiership. He likely will soon enough, but for this weekend, he’ll be in skivvies come kickoff.
Instead, while his Falcons teammates trot onto the pitch in Philadelphia Saturday afternoon for their regular season match with the Saracens, van der Merwe might just have a few extra moments to let his mind wander. Perhaps a quick scan around Talen Energy Stadium might illicit a glimpse into what could be.
With England’s top rugby union competition coming across the Pacific Ocean for the second time in as many years – Saracens played London Irish in New Jersey last season – the idea of top tier professional rugby based in North America has once again swung to the forefront of conversation. Van der Merwe, who is part of the Falcons contingent in Philadelphia, is a game participant.
Photography by: Ryan McCullough
At this stage, he can only dream. Nevertheless, part of him does imagine the “what if?”
“I’d love to play in Canada,” says van der Merwe, who became Canada’s all-time leading try-scorer this past summer when he tallied his 25th try in the first of two World Cup qualifying matches with the USA. “It would be an amazing experience. It’s a beautiful place to live and obviously it’s my home. But the reality is, at the end of the day, it comes down to money.”
Doesn’t it always.
However, with this week’s regular season tilt between the Falcons and Saracens providing yet another piece of evidence that rugby is banging on North America's front door, it would seem the sport is indeed on the verge of taking a serious foothold within the continent’s sporting scene. How that will look in the near future is anyone’s guess.
Following on the heels of the failed PRO Rugby circuit, which ceased operations after its one and only season in 2016, and ahead of the launch of Major League Rugby, which is a USA-based circuit set to begin in 2018, the appetite for professional rugby seems rich. The execution will dictate success.
Further to the conversation is the possibility of inserting a Canadian or American side into an already existing elite level competition – the Pro14, which already has teams in Ireland, Italy, Scotland, South Africa and Wales, would seem to make the most sense. Either way, for van der Merwe, the next step needs to happen soon.
“I think it’s about time we come to the party,” he says.
In the wake of the Jaguares (Argentina) and Sunwolves (Japan) joining the Southern Hemisphere-based Super Rugby competition in 2016, North America is the final frontier.
“I think you just look at the results and the standings in World Rugby,” van der Merwe says. “Look at where Argentina is now. They’re pushing some of the big teams really hard and not long ago they were in the same position that we were. Then you see Japan and how well they’ve done with a pro league there.
“I think there are major opportunities to play in a professional league with European teams or Southern Hemisphere teams. Everyone has been talking about it for five years now, but I think something just needs to happen.”
When Saracens and Newcastle kickoff tomorrow afternoon, it’ll mark the first game of a four-year agreement with the Aviva Premiership and AEG in partnership with NBC Sports. Momentum is gathering.
Photography by: Michelle Quance
“These types of games are going to enhance that and maybe give a bit of sight to the future about what it could be like,” van der Merwe says - and hopes. “It’s something different and I think it’s quite exciting. We want to showcase rugby in North America.”
It would seem something is brewing. A very cautious excitement emanates from van der Merwe’s voice.
On Saturday, he, alongside Evan Olmstead and Jake Ilnicki – two other Canadian stars who are with Newcastle, but not playing in Philadelphia – will watch.
And, like the rugby community across the continent, they’ll wait.
It’s a good time to be a rugby fan in North America. If you have patience.