Scotland’s South African-born and raised winger Duhan van der Merwe could be the bolter in Warren Gatland’s 2021 British & Irish Lions touring squad to South Africa.
The Lions play eight matches in South Africa, including three Test matches against the world champion Springboks, and Van der Merwe is a name that wouldn’t have been on Gatland’s radar three months ago, and he certainly would not have been a discussion for the Lions tour among any South African rugby supporters.
Van der Merwe, who scored the match-winning try against Eddie Jones’s England at Twickenham in Scotland’s opening Six Nations fixture, also scored the winning try against France in Paris. He did so with the last move of the game.
But just who is Van der Merwe?
He was born in George and schooled in George. He played SA Schools and SA under 21s, alongside Springboks flyhalf Handre Pollard in 2014.
Why the fuss and is he good enough to make it back to South Africa in a Lions jersey?
The fuss is because of his try-scoring appetite and his ability to physically dominate a defence.
Van der Merwe, in his Test debut against Georgia, scored a try, ran 101 metres and carried effectively 11 times. He won a second cap against Wales and scored another try in Scotland’s victory against Italy. Then came his impact against England and France in the Six Nations.
He has played 10 Tests for Scotland since his debut on 23rd October, 2020 and he has scored eight tries.
It would be an irony, given Van der Merwe is the most selected surname in Springboks rugby history.
Never, however, has a Van der Merwe, especially one who played for SA Schools and SA under 21s, been picked for the British & Irish Lions.
For the record, eight South African-born and raised players have played for the British & Irish Lions, with CJ Stander (2017 in New Zealand) the latest in this select group. Stander, who recently retired after his 50th Test for Ireland, was the first Afrikaans-speaking player to represent the Lions.
The group of South African-born Lions players
RC Mullins (1896)
Stan Harris (1924)
Brian Black (1930)
Dyson Wilson (1955)
Van der Merwe’s strength is his size. He stands 1.92 metres tall and weighs 110 kilograms. To give you context, that physically would be near the equal of the late legendary All Blacks winger Jonah Lomu at the 1995 World Cup.
For those who back size and believe in big wingers, Van der Merwe would be an obvious selection to play against his former countrymen. Gatland, as a head coach and selector, has never shied away from size.
Experienced Lions and Wales winger/centre George North is an imposing physical presence, but North earlier this week was ruled out of the tour because of injury, and that may just have opened the door for Van der Merwe to make the trip and earn a Test call-up through impressing in the early tour provincial matches.
Van der Merwe is big, strong and fast and he showed his finishing ability in the Six Nations. The 25 year-old can play.
Injuries curtailed his early transition to the seniors and he also struggled with injury when playing for French club Montpellier under Bulls and former Springboks World Cup-winning coach Jake White.
It was White who granted Van der Merwe an early release to pursue a Scottish club and potential national career.
White, when I asked him about Van der Merwe, said he was talented and had speed to match his physicality.
‘He is a big unit,’ White told me. ‘He has done exceptionally well for Scotland and has flourished since arriving in Scotland three years ago. Does he make the Lions? It is a difficult one because the English wingers are very experienced, Gatland is familiar with the Welsh wingers and the Irish wing composition have been powerful for a few seasons. It is a credit to Duhan’s Six Nations performances that so many are talking about him making the squad, but I would be surprised if he did make the initial squad.’
*Fast fact: Duhan van der Merwe is the brother of Springboks hooker Akker van der Merwe.
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