Born in Bloemfontein, van den Heever traveled the 425 kilometres to Pretoria for his schooling at the famous Affies high school. With an alumni including Fourie du Preez, Pierre Spies and Leinster’s Quinn Roux, Affies offers one of the best rugby educations in South Africa.
Van den Heevers’s rugby potential was spotted by the Blue Bulls and he represented them at the U16 Grant Khomo week in 2005. The following two years saw Van den Heever making the natural progression to the Academy Week (U18 secondary National competition) in 2006 and finally the 2007 Craven Week, which represents the peak of South African schools rugby. The Bloemfontein flyer didn’t make the international schools team, but his future with the Bulls was secure.
Van den Heever finished out 2007 out by playing for the Bulls in the ABSA U19 competition. 2008 was spent playing Varsity Cup rugby for the University of Pretoria (‘Tuks’), earning him selection for the inaugural World University Championship Rugby Sevens in Spain. He furthered his reputation at the Bulls with another outstanding campaign in the ABSA U19 competition.
2009 was an important developmental year in Van den Heever’s career. In February, he made his first Vodacom Cup appearance for the Bulls, starting on the wing. Two weeks later, a broken hand for Bryan Habana catapulted Van den Heever into the Bulls’ Super Rugby team for their derby with the Stormers. Still only 19, the pacy winger acquitted himself well and went on to make two more starts before Habana returned. Van den Heever scored his first senior try for the Bulls in a 36-12 loss to the Highlanders.
Habana’s recovery meant the youngster dropped out of the match day squad, but his star had been marked. In June, he traveled to the Junior World Championship with a CJ Stander-captained South Africa, scoring three tries in four games as the Baby ‘Boks finished third. Van den Heever was an unstoppable boulder of form at this stage and returned home to be a star of the 2009 Currie Cup, scoring 11 tries in 13 starts on the wing.
The Bulls won the Currie Cup that season, but Van den Heever was unlucky to be benched for the knock-out stages as the big names of Habana and Francois Hougaard were drafted in. Instead, Van den Heever dropped back to the Bulls U21 side for their Currie Cup final against Western Province. The 6ft 3ins wide man scored two tries with practically his only touches of the game to round off an incredible year.
Habana’s move to the Stormers at the start of 2010 meant that there was finally a spot in the Bulls’ Super 14 team for the wonderkid. Van den Heever began the season as he intended to go on, scoring a try in a 51-34 win over the Cheetahs. From then on he was undroppable, starting all but two of the Bulls’ 15 games en route to winning the competition. Van den Heever’s eight tries (including this spectacular effort) left him just one behind top scorers Joe Rokocoko and Drew Mitchell.
The 21-year-old’s excellent form continued in the Currie Cup, with 15 starts and 5 tries as the Bulls relinquished their title in a semi-final loss to Natal. Overall, it was an incredible season for the young winger and, amidst the hype, Van den Heever was being talked about as a possible Springbok. Another good season in 2011 would possibly have led to an international call-up.
But after the peak of 2009 and 2010 has come something of an extended trough for Van den Heever. His nickname at the Bulls was ‘Shadow’ due to his extreme pace but ironically his form has gradually become a shadow of that 2010 season.
In 2011, he made 14 appearances but only scored three tries as the Bulls failed to make the play-offs in the re-structured Super Rugby. It was far from a vintage season for Frans Ludeke’s side and despite starting with a bang, Van den Heever’s form suffered. In that season’s Currie Cup the Bulls struggled again, missing out on the playoffs. Van den Heever made seven starts but managed just one try. The Bulls style of play in 2011 meant Van den Heever saw less of the ball, and his form dropped away.
After a year in which he and the Bulls hadn’t sparked, Van den Heever decided to make a move to the Stormers in Cape Town on a two-year deal. A strange transfer, considering that Habana and Gio Aplon were already established there as first choice wingers. Van den Heever had to be content with warming the bench for much of the 2012 season. He played 15 times (7 starts) and scored a solitary try in round 16. In the Currie Cup, he started all 12 games as Western Province won the competition, but dotted down just twice.
That brings us to the 2013 season, where Van den Heever made 11 appearances (3 starts) as the Stormers missed out on the Super Rugby playoffs. He began the season on the bench again, but an injury to Habana saw him start twice in March before suffering an injury himself. After recovering, Van den Heever was back riding pine. He scored one try in the 2013 Super Rugby season.
I watched Van den Heever in the games he started against the Brumbies in round six, and the Crusaders in round seven. The first thing that struck me was the size of the 24-year-old. At 6ft 3ins and around 100kg, he is in the George North-mould of large wingers. At that size, he’s obviously strong and he often beat the first defender when in possession. He has quick feet for a tall guy and that means he doesn’t run directly into defenders too often.
Van den Heever looked to be solid under the high ball. He has a good leap and with his height advantage he can win attacking kicks and re-starts. Against the Crusaders, the Stormers looked for Van den Heever from the re-starts and he won possession back twice. However, those were the occasions when the winger was in the right place. His reactions and anticipation can be slow. Great players are always in the right place, but Van den Heever wasn’t consistently well positioned.
He was forced to kick twice over the course of the two games and looked uncomfortable doing so. That looks like an area where Munster will need to do some work. Also, his technique at the breakdown is likely to be addressed. Van den Heever looked happy to just add his weight to the ruck, rather than clearing past the ball or counter-rucking. Obviously this is not a winger’s priority, but it’s a necessity for every player.
Van den Heever’s greatest asset is his searing pace. He is one of the quickest wingers South Africa has produced, and a quick search on Youtube will tell you all you need to know. That speed combined with his footwork make him a threat whenever he gets the ball, but I felt that he could have been far more involved. Pacy players are the ones you look to for a spark, but Van den Heever didn’t provide that in either game.
The 24-year-old scored against the Brumbies from an intercept, but apart from that only touched the ball when it was kicked to him or spread wide to his wing. He never came off the touchline looking for work. Having spoken to a few journalists in South Africa, this would be their main concern about Van den Heever. The perception is that he can be one-dimensional and unwilling to get himself involved at crucial times in games.
Defensively, Van den Heever is a good one-on-one tackler. He didn’t miss a tackle in either of the games I watched, but neither did he make a dominant tackle. If he’s going to replace Doug Howlett with conviction, he will need to use that huge frame of his to make an impact on defence. Again, the feeling is that Van den Heever is happy to just do enough to get by. He didn’t go looking for a big defensive play, or to use his power to smash attackers.
With his pace, size, strength, ability in the air, and still being just 24, Van den Heever can definitely offer Munster something they don’t have in the back three. He is not the finished article but the move to Ireland could be just the motivation he needs to start showing that incredible form of 2010 again. His size and speed make him an exciting prospect and it will be fascinating to watch his progress at Munster.
Photos: Paul Barnard.