New Saints forward loving latest chapter of storied career

Michael van Vuuren (pictures: Kirsty Edmonds)
Michael van Vuuren (pictures: Kirsty Edmonds)

As rugby stories go, hooker Michael van Vuuren's is one of the more interesting.

And having battled through a club's bankruptcy and his own injury woes, the keen script-writer is now desperate to pen some positive events at Saints this season.

Michael van Vuuren provided a lovely offload for Henry Taylor against Leinster

Michael van Vuuren provided a lovely offload for Henry Taylor against Leinster

Van Vuuren has made the move to the black, green and gold after leaving Bath during the summer.

His switch to Saints brings to an end the uncertainty he felt after suffering a shoulder injury for the west country club last season.

And van Vuuren spoke to the media for the first time at Franklin's Gardens on Tuesday afternoon, explaining the eventful rugby journey that has led him to Northampton.

"After school I went to the Free State Cheetahs and I was there for a couple of years," said van Vuuren, who hails from South Africa.

"I decided to go overseas to try to hone my skills and develop my game so I went to France to play for Stade Francais for two years.

"When I finished up there, my goal was always to go home and push for higher honours.

"Sadly, I ended up going back to the Kings, which didn't work out too well for anyone because they went bankrupt and we had certain difficulties at that time.

"The club went bust and a lot of us lost our jobs.

"Luckily, Leicester needed some injury cover so I came over for six months, which was a great experience.

"I've spent the past three seasons at Bath and now here I am.

"I wasn't sure what I was doing at the end of last season because I had quite a bad shoulder injury, but during my rehab process on July 1, I got a phone call about 4pm to ask if I wanted to come to Saints for them to have a look at me. I was ready to go at 7pm that evening and the rest is history."

The events at the Eastern Province Kings were particularly galling for van Vuuren.

Player salaries were regularly paid late through most of the 2015 season and contracts were eventually declared null and void, leading to an exodus of players.

In March 2016, the cash-strapped EPRU was placed under provisional liquidation after failing to pay players’ salaries.

The Kings submitted details of a rescue package to the High Court in May 2016, but in August of that year, liquidation was finalised.

"Going through the Kings challenge was extremely challenging, not just for me but for family, for friends, for the other players involved. It was a year and a half that was very turbulent," explains the 27-year-old.

"We probably experienced things not many players should experience or have experienced in their careers.

"That did help to build some resilience when it came to things being thrown at you that you weren't expecting.

"Because of my circumstances, I came over to England with one suitcase not knowing what I'd be doing past the first month.

"I arrived on December 13, 2015 on a month trial and I'm still here so you just learn to take each day as it comes, and that's what I'm going to be doing at Saints.

"I'm making the most of each day, contributing to the club, helping the boys where I can and you never know what the future will bring so you've just got to keep going really."

Injuries have also helped to make van Vuuren more resilient.

The one he suffered while at Bath last season meant he was forced to seriously consider retirement.

But he kept battling, and was eventually rewarded with his move to Saints.

"It was quite difficult with my shoulder injury and the timing of it," van Vuuren said.

"I wasn't sure what I'd do because I didn't have a lot of opportunities in my final year at Bath so it was difficult for me to find a club.

"I knew I'd given a lot of me to the game and I knew I could look at myself in the mirror if I had to walk away, and it was a real possibility at that time.

"But I stuck at it, I wasn't ready to hang up my boots, even though it was a possibility and something I did think about, even though I didn't want to.

"When the phone call from Saints came, I felt incredibly fortunate and lucky that they had even given me a chance.

"I'm really happy it happened and hopefully I can repay the faith they showed in me."

Van Vuuren now gets another real shot at England's top flight this season.

But what would he be doing had he been forced to call time on his career?

"It's a tough question as I've devoted a large portion of my life to this game but during my time on the sidelines I've developed a keen interest in film-making and script-writing," he said.

"It's obviously more of a hobby at the moment but it's an avenue I'd like to explore.

"I've always been interested in coaching and that side of the game.

"Hopefully I've got many more years in the game so that decision won't be around the corner, but you've got to start preparing for it, I guess."

The door opened for van Vuuren at the Gardens following injuries to the likes of Mike Haywood and Reece Marshall.

Both players were unable to play in the pre-season fixture against Leinster last week, giving van Vuuren a chance to make an early impression.

And he did just that, looking strong while also showcasing an offloading game during the second half with a lovely pass to the onrushing Henry Taylor.

And van Vuuren clearly couldn't be loving life at Saints more than he already is.

"It's been absolutely incredible, and I can't state that enough," he said.

"The culture the coaches and the boys are pushing is very special, I felt that from the first day I got here, which is, I would say, unusual.

"Normally it takes a while to warm to a place or a place to warm to you, but I fitted in immediately, they made me feel welcome.

"It's been thoroughly enjoyable and the boys work really hard.

"It's a very special coaching group as well.

"The key indicator for me is if you're tired and you're sore but you're happy and buzzing to go to work the next day, it shows you're happy.

"I can't wait to get out of bed in the morning and come to the club and I'm really looking forward to seeing what we can do this season."

The season starts on Saturday, with a Premiership Rugby Cup trip to Sale Sharks.

And van Vuuren is looking forward to making his first competitive appearance for his new club.

"Everyone's really excited," he said.

"It's been a long pre-season and now the real stuff begins.

"We've got things we want to work on, things we want to improve and we want to go up there and put in a good performance.

"Sale is a difficult place to go and place but it's a long season and we want to put our flag in the ground early this weekend.

"I'm sure a lot of boys will put their hands up and healthy competition will only make us stronger.

"We're looking forward to it and hopefully we can do the club proud."