Former Lions flyhalf Jaco van der Walt has become the latest South African to strengthen Scotland’s Test resources, writes BRYN PALMER in the latest SA Rugby magazine.
If most people were glad to see the back of 2020, Van der Walt has cause to remember it more fondly than most.
The Edinburgh flyhalf didn’t entirely escape the fallout from Covid-19 – he had to postpone his wedding in June because of the restrictions, and then isolate for a fortnight on his return from the rescheduled event in November.
But belatedly tying the knot and winning a first Test cap for Scotland four weeks later brought a warm end-of-year glow to his personal and professional life.
Two days after kicking Edinburgh to their first win of the new Pro14 season against the Scarlets in Llanelli, Van der Walt swapped rain-lashed west Wales for the warmer climes of South Africa to marry fiancée Siobhan in a ceremony near Johannesburg on 6 November.
The former Golden Lions pivot was home for only five days however, returning 48 hours after his nuptials in order to start a two-week quarantine period back in the Scottish capital.
The last of those 14 days was the day Scotland played France in the Autumn Nations Cup, on 22 November. Van der Walt had completed his three-year residency qualification on 16 November, but the enforced isolation cost him any chance of him being involved.
Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend planned to introduce him to international rugby the following week against Fiji, but a Covid outbreak in the Fijian squad put paid to that match.
Instead, five weeks after his last game for Edinburgh, the 26-year-old was chosen to start the third/fourth-place playoff against Ireland in Dublin on 5 December.
His entrance to the Test arena has not been universally welcomed by the Scottish rugby fraternity. Van der Walt became something of a lightning rod for criticism among those vexed by the steady trickle of so-called ‘project players’ into the Scotland set-up.
The fact he was selected ahead of the diminutive and spectacularly coiffured Duncan Weir, something of a cult figure among Scotland fans, who had performed solidly in his first Test starts for four years against Italy and France, may have been a factor.
Coming swiftly after the recent integration of compatriots Duhan van der Merwe – his Edinburgh teammate – and Glasgow prop Oli Kebble, themselves treading the same path as Josh Strauss, WP Nel, Cornell du Preez and Allan Dell before them, Van der Walt’s introduction three weeks after becoming qualified seemed to be one too many Saffas for some.
Former Scotland stand-off Craig Chalmers opined that the identity of the Scottish squad was being lost ‘with so many players who only qualify through residency’, and that Van der Walt was ‘getting a cheap and easy cap’.
While the 1990 Grand Slam hero blamed the Scottish Rugby Union for not doing enough to develop home-grown talent, his contention that looking abroad for players ‘smacks of desperation’ represented a decidedly frosty welcome for the latest ‘Jock Bok’.
Head coach Gregor Townsend had played a straight bat when asked if it saddened him that Scotland now relied so many non-native players – 18 of his 40-man autumn squad were born outside the country, including five in New Zealand, four in South Africa and three in Australia.
‘No, it doesn’t,’ insisted the former flyhalf, who won 82 caps for his country. ‘Jaco has been playing well for Edinburgh and his performances have earned him the right to be considered.
‘He is a very humble, hard-working player, he puts his body on the line and defensively he must be one of the best tackling stand-offs in world rugby. Jaco’s passing and kicking is of a high level, he can also carry the ball well and he has very good basics.’
Townsend also revealed that Van der Walt has a great-grandfather from Aberdeenshire, giving him a distant Scottish connection, not that it affected his eligibility for the cause.
‘It is up to players who have been capped through the residency mechanism to put huge effort into playing for the country,’ Townsend added. ‘We have seen that with Duhan and Oli and in the past with the likes of WP Nel and [Australia-born centre] Sam Johnson.’
If Van der Walt was aware of the controversy beforehand, it was not apparent once he donned the dark blue jersey in Dublin.
Scotland played some of their best rugby of the year in the opening 30 minutes, with Van der Walt at the heart of it. Operating as a dual first receiver with captain Stuart Hogg, he linked effectively with centres Duncan Taylor and Chris Harris, kicked well from hand and landed three kicks at goal after hitting the post with his first, long-range, attempt.
There were a couple of excitable fumbles, and his influence waned as Ireland’s pack took a firm grip in the second half and the Scots faded collectively. But as international debuts go, Van der Walt looked the part.
Some critics were forced to admit that for someone generally thought of as a decent club player, the Edinburgh flyhallf had shown he was much more than that, even if by the end, with Van der Merwe’s opportunist try adding to Van der Walt’s four successful kicks, Scotland’s points had all been scored by ‘Van der Thingummies’, according to one wag.
Townsend was understandably pleased at how his new charge took to Test rugby, despite being surrounded by some unfamiliar faces. ‘He should be really pleased with the way he performed and that’s on the back of quarantine and just two training sessions with his new teammates,’ noted the head coach. ‘It’s a big positive.’
As for Van der Walt, disappointment at the 31-16 defeat was tempered by his satisfaction at being awarded his first Scotland cap.
‘It was great to get the opportunity to start the game and I’m very humble to play alongside a great bunch of boys,’ he said. ‘I learned a lot. They all helped me and kept me calm. It was great to get that backing and I felt confident going into the game – obviously nervous, but good nervous.’
It was certainly some transformation from the rather fragile individual who pitched up three years ago aiming to ‘just settle in Edinburgh and get used to the cold’.
His first season was a struggle at times, but he has grown in assurance with each passing year and played a key role in helping Edinburgh reach a first Pro14 semi-final last season and European quarter-finals in each of the last two years.
For Van der Walt, time for reflection on his progress to the Test arena was decidedly brief.
He was back in training with Edinburgh less than 48 hours later, preparing for a hectic schedule including opening European Champions Cup fixtures against French Top 14 heavyweights La Rochelle and English Premiership side Sale before a domestic ding-dong with Scottish rivals Glasgow over the festive period.
Head coach Richard Cockerill hopes Van der Walt and Van der Merwe, who scored three tries in his first five Scotland outings, will be ‘even better players now they are internationals’ and bring that experience to bear in their club environment.
‘It was good for Jaco to be away and experience playing at the highest level,’ Cockerill said. ‘Hopefully he can now back it up in these big games week in, week out, because that builds resilience and a stronger mentality.’
‘Jaco’s confident in his own abilities and he gave a really good account of himself with Scotland,’ he added. ‘I think he can play better and I’m sure he will be really keen to get back into the squad for the Six Nations to do it again. Hopefully he will get the opportunity.’
While first-choice flyhalf Finn Russell, having returned from the injury he suffered against Wales in October, is likely to regain the No 10 jersey, his erstwhile deputy Adam Hastings is likely to be unavailable for most of the Six Nations with a shoulder injury.
Van der Walt, then, is likely to be challenging Weir – who started Scotland’s first two Autumn Nations Cup matches – for the role of Russell’s understudy.
‘Finn is the one of the best 10s in the world,’ Van der Walt added. ‘For me, it’s just about learning from them in training and feeding off each other. If I get the opportunity, I just need to play well again but for me it’s a learning curve.’
First up for the Scots is a trip to face defending champions England at Twickenham. They have not won in 18 away matches against the English since 1983, with only two draws – including a remarkable 38-38 on their last visit in 2019 – offering any sustenance.
If Van der Walt were to help Scotland end those 38 years of hurt, it’s just possible he might be embraced rather more warmly into tartan hearts.