ANDREW van der Heijden is no stranger to a scrap, with the Newcastle Falcons lock having learnt the lessons from his basement battles back in New Zealand.
This weekend his Falcons side travel to Leeds Carnegie as the Premiership’s two bottom sides fight it out, knowing that top-flight survival is a giant step closer for the winner.
“I’m used to being in that intensity – I thrive on it, and I play my best rugby when the pressure is on,” said the 26-year-old, who will line up at Headingley in Sunday’s televised encounter.
“You’ve got to work your way up the league, but it’s a situation I’m familiar with first-hand after my time at Counties-Manukau back in New Zealand.”
Van der Heijden was a stand-out player for Counties despite their struggles at the wrong end of the National Provincial Championship table in 2008 and 2009, with his superb form in the engine room earning him a move to traditional giants, Auckland.
“There was no promotion or relegation at that stage, but still it was a tough time,” he recalled. “We were in a worse spot than where Newcastle are now, and the whole key was that you had to remain positive and build on the good points of your performance.
“It’s never any fun when you’re standing behind your own goal-posts but, to be fair, we’ve never really been in that situation with Newcastle. Our defence on the whole has been good, and there hasn’t been a huge difference in score between the winners and the losers in our games.”
Insisting the Falcons’ collective spirit can overcome their current predicament, van der Heijden added: “You’ve got to keep that positive vibe, because if you don’t then you stop believing in yourself, and you can get into even deeper trouble.
“It’s important that we stick together, and that is definitely the case with this group of guys. We’re all good friends, we want to do it for each other and the camaraderie I am sure will work in our favour.”
With his side having received a public tongue-lashing from head coach Alan Tait in the immediate aftermath of Friday’s 23-13 home loss to Exeter, the lock insisted that both management and players were united in their drive to push themselves out of the relegation quick-sand. “The coaches were pretty upset after the game, but I wouldn’t say they’ve been extra-hard on us,” he said.
“They always say what’s on their mind, which is good, but we’ve just been moving on and getting on with the preparations for Leeds, rather than dwelling all week on a game which has already been decided.
“The boys were obviously disappointed with the result, and from my own point of view I don’t think my performance was up where it should be.
“We gave away too many penalties inside our own half, we let off the pressure after we scored and in the end that was the story of the game with their try.
“It was a big disappointment, especially for the management and everybody concerned with the club. Those guys work extremely hard for us, and this week it’s all about redeeming ourselves and paying everyone back for the efforts they’ve put in.
“We’ve put the Exeter game behind us now though, and we’re moving on.
“We had a couple of days off over the weekend, and the guys really had a long, hard look at themselves in the mirror.
“From there we came back to work on Monday really positively, did our analysis and switched on to the challenge ahead. There’s a renewed focus from the boys, the mood is very upbeat and you can sense the excitement within the group.”
Up against a Leeds side not short on grunt, but lacking inspiration behind the scrum, van der Heijden said of Sunday’s opponents: “They’ve got a big forward pack, and they will definitely be tough.”