Cape Town — The Stormers have moved quickly to solve their lock crisis by announcing the signing of former Sharks star Ruben van Heerden on a short-term contract on Friday.
The 25-year-old Van Heerden joins the Cape side from English club Exeter Chiefs with immediate effect, and will be part of the squad from this week — although he won’t feature in Saturday’s Champions Cup clash against Clermont at Cape Town Stadium (7.30pm kickoff).
Van Heerden, a former SA Under-20 second-rower, hails from Pretoria and played for the Bulls in his formative years before making his major breakthrough for the Sharks in Durban.
He was the first-choice second-rower for a few years, but following the arrival of Gerbrandt Grobler and then Springbok stalwart Eben Etzebeth at Kings Park, Van Heerden joined Exeter at the start of the current season.
But having not quite established himself in England, he has decided to return home and provide valuable cover at lock, where he is able to play both the enforcer and lineout-jumping roles.
Stormers coach John Dobson said on Thursday that he was in the market for an additional lock following the season-ending injury to Bok hardman Salmaan Moerat and Adré Smith, as well as lengthy absences for Ernst van Rhyn and Gary Porter.
Bok lineout specialist Marvin Orie will also take a welcome break after next week’s URC game against Ulster in Belfast.
“Ruben is a lock with a solid pedigree who has certainly made life quite difficult for our team in the past, and will play an important role for us in the second half of a demanding season,” Dobson said on Friday.
“We have seen quite a few success stories here with players like Hacjivah Dayimani, Junior Pokomela, Willie Engelbrecht and Stefan Ungerer all arriving initially on short-term deals before signing on more permanently, and we are hopeful that Ruben will have a similar experience.”
Van Heerden added: “The success that the team has had recently speaks for itself and this seems like a really positive environment in which to play rugby.
“I am looking forward to connecting with my new teammates and adding value wherever I can.”
Exeter director of rugby Rob Baxter said in a statement: “Obviously it’s a tough decision for everyone involved.
“Ruben came and saw me a week or so ago, and said he felt he hadn’t quite fitted in how he liked too. He also got married recently, and I think his wife hadn’t quite settled either.
“I think English rugby and the club wasn’t quite what he expected to be, and he was very open and honest about it, and said he didn’t feel he was playing to his potential because wrapping it up, he was just homesick.
“He had no interest to go to another club — he only wanted to go home — and he asked if he could look for opportunities in South Africa, which he did.
“The truth is we don’t want an unhappy player bumping around who wants to get away. We realise he was missing home and his family, and now he’s picked up this offer from the Stormers, so we’ve released him with immediate effect to take up that contract.”
Orie will be partnered by Junior Springbok Connor Evans in the second row against Clermont on Saturday, with Ben-Jason Dixon providing cover off the bench.
“Gary Porter was exceptional in Clermont and will be back available next week. We are training Connor as a caller, so I am not too worried,” Dobson said on Thursday.
“Marvin has one more week with us, but he’s been exceptional and playing for 80 minutes. I almost want to rest him now, but just have to get him across the line for one more.”