Happy Wellington memories for ill prop

HAPPY MEMORIES: Morne van der Merwe.
HAPPY MEMORIES: Morne van der Merwe.

Norm Hewitt asked to be called back - it wasn't that he couldn't fulfil the interview request, more that he needed time to digest what the subject of the discussion would be about.

Morne van der Merwe is not one of the all-time great players to have worn a Wellington jersey. Nonetheless, the prop's place in Lions rugby history is assured, having been part of the Hewitt-captained team of 2000 who were the last Wellington side to claim a national provincial championship.

But at 39 years old, van der Merwe has just days to live.

The South African was diagnosed with a brain tumour two years ago and his wife, Cindy, is hurriedly putting together mementoes of his life to keep for the couple's two young boys.

Van der Merwe was a stalwart of the Eastern Province, 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.

Not only did he win a national provincial championship final in 2000 but he very nearly helped take the Ranfurly Shield off Canterbury the following year. In the eyes of many Lions fans, only referee Steve Walsh denied Wellington that opportunity.

They were wonderful times for the van der Merwes, who had originally come to Wellington as part of an elongated honeymoon.

"He was a really good man and he was a very, very good prop," said Hewitt. "I rate him as one of the top props that I played with in my career and I'm talking the top six or eight," said the ex-hooker, who packed down alongside van der Merwe for those two seasons.

Hewitt knows what it is like to lose a team-mate too soon. Former Hawke's Bay and Hurricanes comrade Jarrod Cunningham succumbed to motor neurone disease in 2007, aged 38.

"I'm blown away. When you told me, I just had to stop," Hewitt said.

"My wife and I were just doing some stuff with our kids and, far out.

"One of my mates, Jarrod Cunningham, he's gone and now Morne.

"You just think of your own mortality; it was only 10 or 11 years ago that Morne was with us."

Hewitt was quick to recall that 2000 NPC final win over Canterbury and how he had to play the last 20 minutes with a broken arm, after van der Merwe was concussed and fellow prop Kevin Yates dislocated a shoulder. Van der Merwe eventually returned to the fray, as Wellington hung on to win 34-29 and snare their first NPC since 1986.

The game could have been gone well before Hewitt broke his arm, had it not been for van der Merwe.

Just before halftime, Canterbury's Fijian flyer, Marika Vunibaka, broke clear near halfway and with no Wellington defenders ahead of him, seemed certain to score.

Miraculously, the 124kg van der Merwe managed to stick out a giant paw and haul Vunibaka down.

"I ran him down from behind, man," a joking van der Merwe maintained after the match.

"Good thing it was halftime then, because I needed a breather."

Hewitt said that was the kind of deed he would remember van der Merwe for.

"He was a top man, a great team man and did anything and everything you could want from a player.

"I couldn't have asked for anything more from Morne."

The Dominion Post