British & Irish Lions wing Duhan van der Merwe thundered through the Sharks on Wednesday night to score a hat-trick and validate pre-tour speculation that he would present a clear and present danger to South Africa’s vaunted defence, writes ZELIM NEL.
The supersized Scotland wing, younger brother of Springbok hooker Akker van der Merwe, made light work of the Sharks’ lightweight outside backs to score two first-half tries in the space of 20 minutes and added one more in the fourth quarter.
Van der Merwe’s performance included flashes of the physicality one might expect from a 1.93m, 105kg specimen as he leveraged a 30kg weight advantage to run through the attempted tackles of Sharks wing Thaakir Abrahams and over fullback Manie Libbok, often without breaking stride.
Werner Kok tips the scales at 94kg and he was the one Sharks back notable for blindsiding Elliott Daly with a meaty hit and, in attack, taking the fight to the Lions as a carrier.
But after he was unceremoniously bounced into touch by Van der Merwe to release Josh Adams for one of his three tries on the night, the Wales wing got up from dotting down, caught Kok’s eye and winked, “Nice tackle …”
That was just one example of how Van der Merwe could emerge as a big piece on the board in this tour – even when diminutive defenders were supported by a second tackler, the big flyer had the physical strength to control the collision and play the ball.
And, in addition to imposing size and raw power, Van der Merwe’s performance showcased his legitimate speed.
This alone wouldn’t be of particular concern to the Springboks who, since Rassie Erasmus’ arrival in 2018, have employed a hard press on defence to cut off the attacking outside backs and chase the ball back inside.
But the deployment of Owen Farrell at flyhalf against the Sharks coincided with an orchestrated attempt to use the defenders’ speed against them.
The hard-running England pivot repeatedly double-clutched his passes to draw the shooting inside backs upfield before he released the ball to a support runner, who had by that time got in behind the tackle line to receive the pass.
Not that the touring backs needed any help solving the Sharks’ press –the Lions have now scored 16 tries in two matches with 12 of those coming from the back three. As was the case in the opener against the Joburg Lions on Saturday, the visitors had no difficulty compressing the defence with decoys and releasing deep runners out the back into wide tracts of space.
Speaking of space, the Sharks picked holes in the Lions’ chase line from kick receipt on multiple occasions with Libbok, Marius Louw and Curwin Bosch having the time to set up linebreaks that broke containment.
The Lions again struggled to interlink the cogs required to make the scrum and maul operate with machine-like consistency. The England combination of loosehead prop Mako Vunipola and Luke Cowan-Dickie could not convert their combined 98 Test caps into traction against 23-year-old Sharks tighthead Khutha Mchunu and hooker Fez Mbatha (21). The visitors spent 20 minutes in the first half trouble-shooting their scrum issues and had no access to the scoreboard during this period.
Coach Warren Gatland will also be eager to see the maul start clicking into gear as the Lions again failed to make much of an impression in a facet of play that is central to South Africa’s formula for success.