British & Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland says he expects Saturday’s first Test against the Springboks to be a challenge for Duhan van der Merwe as he prepares to face Cheslin Kolbe in an intriguing clash of styles.
Van der Merwe was somewhat surprisingly named ahead of reliable Wales wing Josh Adams to start in the first of the three-Test series in Cape Town.
The South African-born Scotland wing has been in excellent form during the tour, scoring four tries in the two games against the Sharks, including a hat-trick in the first.
However, the 26-year-old van der Merwe will have the defensive side of his game tested on Saturday when he comes up against Springbok win Kolbe in a fascinating ‘David and Goliath’ clash.
While the 1,9m, 105kg Van der Merwe can bash his way through defences like a wrecking ball, Kolbe is one of the best in the world when it comes to evading tackles through his quick feet and sidestepping ability.
The Lions experienced this first-hand in their match against the South Africa A team, when Kolbe received the ball from a poor clearance and stepped in between two players before offloading to set up Lukhanyo Am for what was ultimately the decisive try in the first half.
“It’s going to be a real challenge,” Gatland said on containing Kolbe. “Cheslin didn’t get many opportunities; he got one opportunity in that A game and made the most of it. So, we can’t afford to do what we did in that A game and kick the ball down his throat. So we hopefully won’t be giving him as much time and space on the ball on Saturday.”
Gatland said that he expects the Springboks to have put a target on Van der Merwe’s back, but said that the player himself was “relaxed” about what he will face at Cape Town Stadium.
“Look, it’s a challenge for him. I spoke to him yesterday and said to him, ‘Do you know what’s coming on Saturday?’ and he was fully aware,” Gatland said. “I presume every time he touches the ball they will be trying to hit him with everything they’ve got. There will probably be some verbals at him as well. He’s well aware of what’s at stake.
“But he’s been incredibly relaxed. The way he’s been running with the ball and beating defenders and also scoring tries – the top try-scorer in the  Six Nations.”
On selecting Van der Merwe ahead of Adams, Gatland explained that the call owed itself to the Wales player’s mental and physical state. Adams last week had to watch the birth of his first child over a video call, but still played for the Lions in their win over the Stormers thi past weekend.
“It was a really tough call in terms of that, leaving Josh Adams out. I spoke to Josh yesterday and said that it was just such a tough call for us and for himself. He had a pretty emotional week last week with the birth of his child and the next couple of days, checking in.
“By his own admission, he didn’t play as well as he normally would on the Saturday [against the Stormers] and that’s completely understandle because of the week he had. He had a little knock on his hip and a significant blow to the sternum that was pretty sore as well.”
Photo: Gallo Images