South Africa-born wing Duhan van der Merwe on finding a home at Edinburgh, the prospect of facing the Springboks and his ambitions.
You were young when you left South Africa to join Montpellier in 2016. How did that move come about?
At that time, I wasn’t in the mix to play any senior rugby. I felt my rugby wasn’t progressing like I wanted it to so when my agent mentioned there was an opportunity to go to Montpellier, I couldn’t turn it down.
Why did you then leave Montpellier after just a short stay?
Once there, I wasn’t getting the game time I wanted. They had some big names at the club and I had to compete with the best in the world. I couldn’t really speak French and I was struggling with my hip for about 14 months. I am grateful for everything that I learned there, but Edinburgh was the better option for me at that time.
How did that move originate?
Scott Wisemantel [Montpellier’s backline coach at the time] mentioned that Edinburgh had their eyes on me. Soon thereafter, my agent brought me an offer from Edinburgh and said there was a strong possibility that I could qualify for Scotland after three years. I jumped at the opportunity.
During those early years abroad, how did you cope without the support network of your family and friends?
Going home to George in the off season has always been really important to me. You also build a good support base with South African and foreign friends at each club. Having my girlfriend with me during my time at Edinburgh has also made things easier.
What has the journey from the Bulls to Edinburgh been like?
The experience has increasingly been better from club to club. I learned a lot from all the players at Montpellier, but playing senior rugby at Edinburgh has been the peak of my career.
Why are you so committed to Edinburgh coach Richard Cockerill and the club?
When I came over, I said upfront: ‘There’s something wrong with my hip, I don’t know what it is’. So I went to see the doctors and failed my medical. I was a bit concerned; I thought: Where to next? What now? It could’ve gone badly for me and if Cockers [Richard Cockerill] hadn’t backed me when I failed that medical, that was probably me done for because I didn’t have many options back then. Who was going to fix my hip? Where was I going to get rehab and all of that? So, I’m really grateful to him for backing me then. This club and coach threw me a lifeline when I failed my medical so, at the end of the day, it was an easy decision to re-sign with Edinburgh. I’ve developed my career here and as a player I’ve been thriving under Cockers’ guidance over the last couple of years. His discipline at training and on game days have kept me in check. He keeps me on my toes and gives me constructive criticism when it’s due.
You’re now qualified to play for Scotland. Was that one of your goals when you signed with Edinburgh?
I knew from the beginning that I would be eligible to qualify after three years, but I first wanted to establish myself in the Edinburgh team. I only really started thinking about it after two and a half years at the club. Now that I’m eligible for selection, it’s constantly in my head. I keep telling myself if the opportunity is there to play, I want to grab it with both hands and give it a shot and see where I’m at and whether I can make that step up.
Are you excited by the possibility of playing against South Africa?
I would be honoured to play at Test level against the world champions and my home country … It would be really cool lining up against South Africa. I’d love it.
Hypothetically speaking, if you were to get a Scotland and a Springbok call-up at the same time, which country would you choose?
I played at school level and Junior Springboks, so I naturally always wanted to play for the Springboks. However, I feel my career kick-started at Edinburgh and, with the passion shown by the Scottish supporters, I would be honoured to wear the Scottish jersey.
Your brother, Akker, is a capped Springbok. Should you play for the Scotland against the Boks, where will the Van der Merwe family loyalty lie?
I’d like to think that my family will wear one half Springbok and one half Scottish jersey. They’ve always been supportive of both of us. They would value us for our individual talents more than what side we were representing. My brother has had the biggest influence on my career; he has always worked really hard and set a great example for me.
At this point in your career, what are your best attributes and your weaknesses?
My best attributes would probably be my speed and power; running with the ball and being physical. I’ve worked really hard at my speed and strength and I want to keep improving those because my speed is everything for me. And being able to run that fast with 107kg is a bonus. I used to just stand on the wing and if I didn’t get the ball, I’d walk off the field and say: “They didn’t pass to me”. Whereas now, I actually work to get the ball. I’ve still got bits of my game I need to develop but I’m a much different player than I was when I arrived here. I’m a lot more confident in the things I do. I’d say my areas to work on are the softer skills of the game, like offloading and handling.
What has been your best and worst moments as an Edinburgh player?
The best moment was getting two interceptions against our rivals Glasgow in the 1872 Cup matches last year. My least favourite moment was losing against Munster in the 2018-19 European Champions Cup quarter-final.
What’s your opinion on the Cheetahs and Kings’ participation in the Pro14?
The Kings and Cheetahs have been great opponents to play against because they play a very fast brand of rugby. And of course it’s always nice playing against old teammates. The inclusion of more South African teams in the competition in the future would be a massive boost to the Pro14 and it would give local players a lot of exposure in the European market.
Which team do you love playing against most?
I really loved playing against my old club Montpellier in the Champions Cup. But in the Pro14, I really enjoy playing against Munster. They are a really physical and well-coached side and there’s that South African connection with first Rassie Erasmus being the coach and now they have Johann van Graan.
What drives you as a player and a person?
I always try to be the ultimate best I can be by learning about myself and I how I can grow. As a person I try to value all the little things in life, like a good braai and spending time with friends and family.
What were some of the culture shocks you’ve had?
The weather in the UK has been the biggest challenge; it’s horrible. However the Scottish people deal with it in the best way possible – with a good joke and a beer. I miss my family back home the most, as well as the good weather in the Western Cape. Scotland is a beautiful country, though, and I enjoy travelling both locally and around Europe.
What’s it like playing alongside fellow South Africans?
Playing with boys from home is always great – it feels like a little piece of home. We have a good group here. It’s WP Nel, Nic Groom, Pierre Schoeman, Mike Willemse and Jaco van der Walt. It’s great to be surrounded by compatriots. They’re teammates but in a way also your support group. We are all really close, although Jaco and Mikey Willemse might disagree because I annoy them the most.
When you first got to the club, what was the reception in the change room like?
They were all very welcoming and I immediately felt at home. Even if they tease me about my Afrikaans accent every now and then.
What are you hobbies or interests outside of rugby?
I enjoy a good round of golf, or some early morning fishing as well as sitting around the fire with people who are important to me. My girlfriend and I enjoy travelling as much as we can when possible. It’s just us two in Scotland so we look after one another. My brother and his wife and son are not too far away – in Manchester – so we get to visit them often.
What are some of your guilty pleasures?
I like to indulge in a good holiday, good cologne and some good food of course! My pet peeve is I really don’t enjoy cats and spiders! But with regards to people, I don’t take well to people who are disrespectful of others.
Considering your journey, what is your outlook on life?
Always focus on being your best, even though there may be obstacle on your path, it’s important to honour values and keep pushing on.