The Scotland wing, who is joining Worcester from Edinbirgh next season, talks Tom English through his unusual route to Test honours
Duhan van der Merwe’s rugby journey
First things first, big Duhan van der Merwe, of Edinburgh and Scotland via George in the Western Cape, wants to clear up a few things.
That stuff about the origins of his Christian name on Wikipedia? The brilliantly curious claim that he was named after a musician from Limerick called Johnny Duhan? “It’s nonsense, man. I honestly don’t know where these people dream this stuff up.”
And his brother, the Sale hooker Akker? “It says he was named after a guy who used to play the clarinet, Acker Bilk. He wasn’t.
“It’s funny. We’re reading this and we’re laughing. Some people have great imaginations and way too much time on their hands.”
Back in October, after three years in Scotland, van der Merwe made his debut for Gregor Townsend’s team with a cap and a try against Georgia. His arrival on the Test scene was keenly anticipated given the regular destruction he has caused in the Guinness Pro14 in recent years – the barnstorming runs, the tries that come in waves.
Townsend had been counting the months to his qualification. First chance he got, he put the wing straight in. Van der Merwe scored, carried 11 times and ran for 101 metres. He won a second cap off the bench in the win over Wales in Llanelli, then scored again in his next Test from a brilliant out-to-in line as Scotland defeated Italy. Not a bad start to an international career.
“The debut was a very special day for me,” he says. “I’m not usually nervous before a game. I’m usually the one wandering about and making jokes, but I was nervous that day and I was even more nervous when I came on as a substitute against Wales. It’s a different level. You feel it more.
“And I knew that everybody back home would be watching. The SRU set me up on a family Zoom call just after the Georgia game and they were all there. They had their faces painted with the Scottish flag, they had the flag hanging up in the living room, my dad was wearing the Scotland jersey. I was so, so proud.”
All of this is something of an unlikely story. As a teenager in South Africa, he was a standout, a star of Craven Week two years running, a schoolboy international, a South Africa U20 player.
In 2014, he came off the bench in the Junior World Cup final in Auckland, an England team captained by Maro Itoje winning 21-20 against a Springbok side led by Handré Pollard. Pollard would get his revenge on Itoje in the senior World Cup final five years later, but by then van der Merwe’s life had changed.
“I had high expectations of being a full Springbok when I was 18 and 19, but when I hit 20 things weren’t working out the way I wanted them to. I had a lot of injuries that set me back and I found myself stuck in a bit of a rut.
“I needed to get away, so I went to France to play for Jake White’s Montpellier, but that didn’t work out either. There were just too many good players ahead of me. I was probably just a nice little player but not tough enough. I didn’t play much but I learnt a lot. That was 2016.”
He arrived in Edinburgh in 2017 in poor shape. He’d had a hip injury that required surgery, an ailment that saw him fail his medical. Richard Cockerill gambled on him regardless.
“I owe him a big debt. Edinburgh spent a lot of time on me. I just wanted to get the ball in my hands and run, and when I got my injury problems behind me then everything started to come good.
“Attacking is my thing and I want to get on the ball more and more. I don’t want single-figure carries in a game, I want double figures.
“If I can carry ten times or more then I think I can make a difference. I can’t have games where I touch the ball three or four times, so that’s my target. I want to carry as much as possible. Double figures, no matter who we’re playing against.”
He misses the family, of course. Now more than ever. He’d like nothing more than for them to come to Scotland to see him play a Test match in the flesh, but normal life is on hold right now. For his part, he wouldn’t mind nipping back to George for a week. “The heat, man. The heat. It’s 28 or 29 degrees. Gimme seven days of that and I’ll be fine.”
As a kid, all he ever wanted to do was play for the Springboks, but it’s funny how life turns out. “It seems like a long time ago when I was dreaming of that,” he says.
“The last three years in Edinburgh have been the happiest of my career. I want to get better, I want to stay involved with Scotland and win as many games and caps as I can. I’m a genuinely happy man. Honoured and privileged to be doing what I’m doing. People will look at the residency thing but all I can say is that I’m giving it absolutely everything I’ve got and I’ll keep doing it.”
This article originally appeared in the January 2021 edition of Rugby World magazine.
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