ANDREW van der Heijden is ready to cook up a storm for Newcastle Falcons this season.
The giant lock forms part of a Kiwi team taking on a home contingent in a culinary contest this afternoon, and has even been preparing by visiting the appropriately-named Cook Islands for his summer holidays.
“We went home to Auckland see the family for a month during the off-season, and had a week in Rarotonga, the biggest of the Cook Islands,” he said.
The 27-year-old is joined by countrymen Jimmy Gopperth, Ryan Shortland, Richard Mayhew and Jamie Helleur for the Kingston Park kitchen clash, with the overseas contingent branding themselves the ‘New Zealand Lambs’.
They will take on a ‘Great British Menu’ trio of Ally Hogg, Rob Vickers and Michael Tait, with the promotional event also doubling up as one of many summer initiatives to enhance team spirit and integrate new signings into the fold.
One such arrival is Helleur, with the highest-profile capture to date being a long-time friend of Van der Heijden.
“I know Jamie from our time together at Auckland Grammar School, and he is a great character,” said the former Blues Super 14 team-mate.
“He likes to have a joke and is a great guy in the changing rooms for keeping spirits up, but when it comes to training and game time he gets down to business. He is serious when he needs to be, and I am sure he will add a lot to the side.”
Expanding on the impact he expects from the experienced midfield man, he added: “The way he attacks with the ball in hand will be a big asset for us, and he is devastating in defence despite maybe not being the biggest of centres.
“He brings a lot of talk into the back line, and I have got no doubt that he will help to shore up that department and really get things going for us.”
With the Falcons’ only retaining their Aviva Premiership status on a dramatic final day of last season despite a heavy defeat at Bath, Van der Heijden insisted lessons had been learnt going into the new campaign.
“It was a weird feeling down at Bath on the final day, with losing so badly but still staying up due to Leeds’ result at Northampton,” he explained.
“There was a mixture of relief and frustration really, and nobody especially felt like celebrating because we know that the performance was nowhere near good enough.
“Pre-season has been good so far, though, and there is a lot of hard work going in.
“As well as the weights sessions we have been out and about around the region, and the sessions we have done with the Commonwealth Games wrestler Terence Bosson have been really enjoyable. It is an interesting twist on what we have done in the past, and as well as being beneficial to the team it just keeps up the variety and interest in our training programme.”
Expecting a more free-flowing style from the Falcons as they look to improve on dwindling crowds and falling league positions, Van der Heijden added: “The coaches here have laid out their plan, and the squad are getting right behind them. Everybody has talked about making a good start, as you would expect, but we know it is doubly important given the way we finished last season.”
Meanwhile, former Falcon Brent Wilson has headed back to his homeland, with the flank-forward captaining New Zealand province North Harbour to a 31-14 win over Counties Manukau yesterday.
Another Falcon on the move is winger Danny Williams, who has returned to rugby league by joining Salford Reds after an unsuccessful trial with Hull KR.