No slowing down for Duhan

Duhan van der Merwe is establishing himself as one of the most dangerous wings in world rugby, writes ANDRE-PIERRE CRONJE in the latest SA Rugby magazine.

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Robert Burns wrote in 1796 that ‘Nae man can tether time or tide’. Were he alive today, the fabled Scottish poet might have been referencing Duhan van der Merwe.

When the 1.9m, 107kg wing powered through England captain Owen Farrell to score a match-winning try in the opening round of the 2021 Six Nations, it was a definitive statement to the rugby world. He would not be stopped.

Duhan van der Merwe has always been a big man. At Outeniqua, where he attended high school, he stood head and shoulders – literally and metaphorically – above his competitors.

The blond wing left defenders scattered in his wake and scored tries almost at will. SA Schools and Craven Week selections were a formality. So too was his eventual youth contract with the Vodacom Bulls.

In 2014 he played for the Junior Springboks in a team captained by Handre Pollard. Some powerful contributions in that tournament made Van der Merwe a standout.

It appeared that everything was falling into place. ‘I had high expectations of being a full Springbok when I was 18 and 19,’ Van der Merwe once admitted.

When Jake White’s Montpellier came knocking, fame and fortune beckoned. It was not to be.

A combination of injuries and indolence left Van der Merwe struggling for game time at Montpellier. He would later describe his time there as ‘one long, very chilled holiday’.

The conditions were totally unsuitable for unlocking his full potential. Something had to change. It wasn’t long before he decided to move to Edinburgh, swapping the beaches of France’s south coast for the cold stone and granite skies of Scotland’s capital.

There is an intensity about Edinburgh; a city flanked by a dead volcano with a fortress protruding from its centre. The wind that whips through its Georgian streets cuts deeply. The winter darkness is oppressive. It can be an unforgiving environment for those who do not possess the mental strength to tough it out. Scotland, as their anthem would suggest, is a place where the proud are sent home to think again.

This challenging environment would prove to be the making of the man. A great deal of his success is owed to the tutelage and belief of Edinburgh coach Richard Cockerill.

The former England hooker decided to contract Van der Merwe in 2017 despite the wing failing his medical. Cockerill saw something special in the young man and took a chance on him. He would see to it that his faith did not go unrewarded.

The Edinburgh coaches set about reshaping Van der Merwe from the self-described ‘nice but not tough enough’ player, into something altogether more potent. Backline coach Duncan Hodge stoked a fire inside the big South African.

‘When he turned up for his first training session with us he had a bad hip injury, but you could still see that he was this amazing athlete,’ the Scotland flyhalf recalls. ‘He’s a really big man, but as well as the power, there was also real pace.

‘When it came to the tackle drills, you could see guys edging away. That told its own story. He was very raw, and we’ve had to work on his defence and a whole range of technical issues, but it’s absolutely no surprise that he’s done so well.’

Anyone who has watched Van der Merwe knows what drives him as a player – an insatiable need to attack the line: ‘I want to get on the ball more and more. I don’t want single-figure carries in a game, I want double figures’.

The impact has been staggering. No player has beaten more defenders, broken the line more times or made as many metres as Van der Merwe since his introduction to the PRO14.

In two years at Edinburgh, Van der Merwe went from a perennially injured youngster with all the talent but none of the intent, to one of the finest wings in Europe.

No matter the scale of his successes though, Van der Merwe was continually dismissed by many South Africans. Another victim of the myopic perception that any player not good enough to ‘make it’ domestically could never be good enough to represent the Springboks.

It must have been an intensely disheartening experience for a man who grew up dreaming of wearing the green and gold. With bravery and humility he resigned his boyhood aspirations and, undeterred, charted a new course for himself with Scotland.

On 23 October 2020, Van der Merwe won his first cap as an international rugby player, scoring on debut. It was a vindication of all the difficult choices he had made in his career.

With each subsequent performance for Scotland, apathy is turning to anguish for his South African detractors. Every linebreak, every defender flattened, every try scored serves as a reminder that someone truly extraordinary has been lost to Springbok rugby. South Africa may have a surplus of talent, but there’s an inescapable sense that Van der Merwe is the one that got away.

One nation’s loss is another’s gain, however. Irn-Du, as some have taken to calling him (a play on the popular drink Irn-Bru) is adored in Scotland.

He does not evoke the same petty nationalism that often colours debates about ‘project players’. His obvious value to the national set-up eclipses any mutterings of so-called ‘loyalty’. Far from being considered a mercenary, he is seen as an adopted son. One passionate Scot put it succinctly: ‘Duhan got to choose to be Scottish, the rest of us were just lucky.’

At only 25, Van der Merwe is set to terrorise opposition defences for years to come. His international career may be in its infancy, but already the signs are there that he has the makings of a great. When Scotland coach Gregor Townsend was asked whether Van der Merwe was his side’s key attacking weapon there was more than a hint of expectation in his answer: ‘I hope so.’

The boy from George who now dons the thistle and tartan of Scotland has trod the path less travelled. He has paid in sweat for every inch of that journey. His is a lesson in perseverance, courage in convictions, and the enduring importance of attitude.

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Craig Lewis