As talented with a guitar in his hand as he was explosive with a rugby ball in his big mitts, former Wellington prop Morne van der Merwe is gone but not forgotten.
The gentle South African giant who won an NPC title with the Lions in 2000 died at the age of 39 in Cape Town on Friday after a long battle with brain cancer.
His former Wellington coach, Dave Rennie, said yesterday that van der Merwe had left a lasting impression on everyone involved in the championship-winning squad both on and off the field.
"It's just devastating, really. He was a quietly spoken beast of a man.
"An incredibly explosive and dynamic player, but a real gentleman off the field. He loved his guitar and he was pretty impressive on that.
"He was a big player in regards to our success that year and we didn't have the same power after he went back to South Africa.
"He was a big man, a typical South African frontrower with a barrel of a chest, but he was really explosive.
"He was as explosive as someone like Sona Taumalolo, highly skilled and coming out of Africa well versed in the art of scrummaging."
Tony Bedford, who was Wellington manager at the time, was instrumental in bringing van der Merwe to the capital after fostering a close relationship between the Stormers and the Hurricanes.
He recalled yesterday making the request for the promising prop and the impact he had on the last Wellington side to claim a national provincial championship.
But mostly he remembered van der Merwe as a "great guy, a popular guy, and really talented with his guitar".
Van der Merwe is survived by his wife Cindy and sons Joshua, 7, and Matthew, 5.
A memorial service will be held in South Africa mid week. His well-documented battle with a brain tumour which was diagnosed two years ago had a cruel end after his wife applied for and won a Make-A-Wish competition for the family to go to Disneyland.
The trip never took place because van der Merwe's cancer returned.
Van der Merwe was a stalwart of the Eastern Province, including an appearance against the All Blacks in a mid-week match in 1996.
He also played for Western Province and Stormers teams of the late 1990s and early 2000s, but the two years he spent playing in Wellington were among the happiest of his career.
The van der Merwes had originally come to Wellington as part of an extended honeymoon and Rennie was keen for Morne to stay on.
However, van der Merwe chose to pursue his career in his homeland.
Wellington won the final of the NPC in 2000 with a 34-29 win over Canterbury, their first NPC since 1986.
Van der Merwe made 11 appearances for the Stormers in the Super Rugby competition 2001 and played 28 times for Western Province in the Currie Cup between 2000-2004.
- The Dominion Post
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