Warren Gatland mystified with several notable omissions from the British & Irish Lions squad, but the selection of Duhan van der Merwe was spot on, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
The list of big names who were surprisingly overlooked for the 37-man Lions squad is a long one.
Considering how Gatland was willing to mercilessly cut his squad down to size, it wouldn’t have been all that surprising to effectively see a Test rookie such as Van der Merwe miss the trip to his home country.
Instead, that was the fate for another George-born South African, CJ Stander.
Most recent Six Nations and domestic form certainly don’t appear to have factored into each individual selection, with Gatland balancing experience, youth, formidable physical specimens, national representation and those who can fit into his style of play.
But when it comes to the 106kg and 1.93m Van der Merwe, Gatland is backing the right horse. A purebred stallion, in fact.
Van der Merwe has been a force of nature on the northern-hemisphere club scene for some time, but his timely Test qualification for Scotland and unforgettable Six Nations season could not have been scripted any better.
It was during this year’s Six Nations that the barnstorming wing beat a tournament-record 31 defenders and finished as the Championship’s top try-scorer with five in his debut campaign to effectively book his Lions plane ticket to South Africa.
He quite literally stands head and shoulders above the other wings Gatland has added to his squad, and Van der Merwe’s physicality and game-breaking ability is undoubtedly what was most appealing for this challenge against the Bok army.
The Springboks may well look to expose some of Van der Merwe’s insecurities under the high ball and on defence, but there is every reason to believe Gatland may well be inclined to hand the Lions No 11 jersey to the South African expat.
This would equate to a potentially mouthwatering matchup opposite Cheslin Kolbe, who has proven he cannot be underestimated on defence despite his diminutive stature.
Yet, Gatland may still be inclined to hedge his bets on Van der Merwe naturally winning any one-on-one collisions with his opposite number, and certain set plays may well be designed for just such a set-up.
These are the fascinating contests we can look forward to as the Lions tour fast approaches, and there’s no doubt plenty of headline space will be reserved for Van der Merwe when he arrives on South African shores.
It’s impossible not to think perhaps he is a player who got away in light of his rise to prominence in the northern hemisphere, but nothing should detract from this achievement.
Van der Merwe once doubted he had a future in the game. Now he is a British & Irish Lions tour member. It’s been quite the journey and, at least in this regard, Gatland has undoubtedly nailed such a selection.