Letter: Battle for Duhan van der Merwe

In another letter to the editor as we continue to encourage our readers to send CRAIG LEWIS submissions, Andre-Pierre Cronje suggests the Boks should consider giving Edinburgh wing Duhan van der Merwe a Test cap before Scotland do.

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South Africa finds itself uniquely blessed with a plethora of world-class wings. World Cup heroes Makazole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe have made themselves the undisputed mainstays of the Springbok lineup.

Such is the strength and depth of South Africa’s reserves that Sbu Nkosi, who would likely waltz into the starting lineup of most international sides, finds himself struggling to even make the match-day 23.

If Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber were to experiment with Kolbe at fullback, however, it would offer the potential for another wing to enter the fold. Nkosi seems poised to fill that breach but Warrick Gelant and the exciting prospect of Aphelele Fassi (though both more comfortable at fullback) would stake strong claims.

So too would the mercurial Dillyn Leyds or even the promising Madosh Tambwe. In the maelstrom of these competitors is another contender for the throne – more removed from the zeitgeist of the South African rugby-watching public, but no less deserving of his claim.

Over the past two seasons Duhan van der Merwe has come of age. No longer the promising but perennially injured player lost in a Vodacom Bulls system where talent goes to die; at 25 years old Van der Merwe has found a home in Edinburgh and established himself as one of the leading wings in the northern hemisphere.

His stats are colossal: in this year’s PRO14 van der Merwe has made 73 carries beating 61 defenders in the process, the most of any player in the tournament. Explosive, dynamic and with a deceptive turn of pace, the 6’4” and 106kg blond wing boasts immense physical prowess.

His bump and fend are all too reminiscent of his brother Akker ‘The Angry Warthog’ – already a Springbok. But Van der Merwe’s physical size should not fool anyone into thinking he’s little more than a battering ram: with 27 clean breaks (tournament leading), 756 run metres (tournament leading) and seven tries (only third in the competition) it is apparent that he boasts an eye for a gap and a lethal finishing instinct to complement his power.

Van der Merwe offers a tantalising balance to a Springbok back three, acting as a perfect (brutal) foil to the quicksilver Kolbe or the irrepressible Mapimpi. The Ray Mordt to their Carel du Plessis; the Pietersen to their Habana.

If deployed on the bench as part of the Bok Bomb Squad, Van der Merwe’s power makes him a versatile option to cover at centre or fullback as well as wing. This may prove valuable in facilitating the current Springbok strategy of employing a 6-2 bench split and offer an edge his competitors cannot.

As the July Tests beckon (and should they go ahead) there will be a conflict raging for Van der Merwe’s loyalty. He qualifies for Scotland on residency just before the tour and would all but certainly be named in Gregor Townshend’s squad.

The question then remains, do Rassie and Jacques open the door and beckon in from the Scottish winter one of South Africa’s most talented but neglected sons? Or, is yet another potential Springbok lost to the home nations who are increasingly incapable of developing their own talent?

Duhan van der Merwe, too, faces a choice. To paraphrase the great Roger Waters, does he want a ‘walk-on role in the war or lead role in a cage’?

Choosing the Bok path, though, cannot guarantee him the 50 caps he would surely earn for Scotland. Yet it offers him something Scotland never could – the rarest of opportunities for World Cup glory, Lions Series victory, and the fulfilment of a childhood dream.

The choice may yet be his.

– Andre-Pierre Cronje

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