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van der Merwe's Scottish adventure

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'I knew nothing about Edinburgh. I didn't even know it was in Scotland. I'd never really heard of it'

If you’d given 21-year-old Duhan van der Merwe a map and a marker pen and asked him to circle Edinburgh – even to sketch a line around the right continent – the enormous winger would have been hopelessly flummoxed.

It is not that van der Merwe has a blind spot for geography, only that the Scottish capital did not register the tiniest blip on his radar until the summer of 2017 when Richard Cockerill got in touch and a contract offer landed in his inbox.

“I knew nothing about Edinburgh, mate,” he told RugbyPass. “Nothing at all. I didn’t even know Edinburgh existed. I didn’t know where it was, I didn’t even know it was in Scotland. I’d never really heard of it.”

At the time, van der Merwe was coming to the end of a one-year stint among Montpellier’s galacticos. He had played barely any senior rugby, only a handful of Top 14 outings, but done enough to convince Cockerill there was a heck of a talent longing to be unleashed.

This was the starting point for the hulking poster boy of Edinburgh’s backline, a 6ft 4in, 106kg South African show-stopper with swollen arms, thick blonde thatch and the sort of exhilarating game to jolt you off your seat.

(Continue reading below…)

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In two years at the club, he averages a try every other match. He has gobbled up an eye-watering yardage count, places among the most prolific PRO14 breakers of tackles and is firmly up there with the continent’s premier strike threats.

Van der Merwe is blooming now, but that he is here at all is down to his elder brother Akker, a rambunctious Springbok hooker who joined Sale Sharks in the summer.

At 15, the younger van der Merwe was ready to jack it in, fed up of his gangling frame and fearful he would never gain the beef required to fill it out. By 18, he had won SA schools, Baby Boks caps and a place in the Blue Bulls set-up, but had seriously injured both knees.

“I was always the smaller guy, small and skinny. I said to my brother, ‘Nah, I’m just going to focus on athletics and play some hockey’. He told me to stick it out. He always pushed me, told me it was going to work out. He took me to the gym, I picked up a lot of weight, and I really look up to him.

“Getting both knees done at 18… I’m a winger; I’m thinking, where’s my speed going to go? You get back and you get another injury, another injury, and it obviously knocks your confidence. I was injured for 16-18 months of my first two years at the Bulls. You never get the opportunity to even train with the senior boys because you’re not out there proving yourself.

“The same happened to my brother. He went out of school, broke his leg, and for four years was just injured, injured, injured. He got his degree, went to the Lions, and since then has had an amazing career.

“He used to bully me when we were kids. He’d call me out to the garden to play touch rugby and all of a sudden just bump me on my back and stand there laughing. When I actually started to get some muscle on me, I said, ‘One day, I’ll get you back’. I don’t know when that’ll be – it’ll probably have to wait until he’s 50 or 60.”

Overwhelmed by the sheer volume of rivals scrapping for minutes in the Bulls age-grades, van der Merwe began to doubt himself. He also grew weary of a system he saw as cynical. The bigger franchises, he felt, were playing a numbers game – hoovering up as many prospects as they could and gambling that at least a few would become stars.

“They’ve got so many boys to choose from, so many boys,” he said. “Straight after school, you’ve got unions… that was sometimes the problem. I’ve seen it happen where they’ll sign 55 of the best boys. Well, only 23 can play. Some of them are not even playing anymore.

“If they maybe went a different route, went to a smaller union, they’d have had an opportunity. Some of them don’t even get an opportunity. Sometimes they leave to a different union, they start playing, and all of a sudden it’s like, this guy’s unreal. The numbers are mad.

“As you get it older, it just gets harder and harder and harder because there are youngsters coming in the whole time and you still have to compete with boys older than you, internationals and all that. I was just going through a period where I didn’t back myself.”

It was at Montpellier where he found his mojo. Playing time was lean, but Scott Wisemantel, Eddie Jones’ attack coach, poured hours of extra drills into him. The giants in his midst urged him on. “It was a nice learning year for me, playing with Bismarck du Plesiss, Nemani Nadolo, Frans Steyn, Jan Serfontein, all those boys.

“That’s what kept me going. Frans Steyn used to say, ‘You’ve got good speed and strength, back yourself, run at people’. It was very cool. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t go there expecting to start every game. You look at all those boys they’re signing and you’re thinking, do I really have a shot here?

“Getting the opportunity to come to Edinburgh, that’s where my career started. I would have liked it to start earlier than when I was turning 22. I was still young, but my career started here at Edinburgh when Richard Cockerill backed me.”

The next six months are monumental. Some seriously big decisions loom. By July, van der Merwe’s contract will be up and he will have lived in Scotland long enough to become eligible for the national team. Negotiations have begun over a new deal and the likelihood is that he will sign it.

Inevitably, given the kind of rugby he has been playing, talk of Scotland caps will be rife. The national coaches have not been in touch, but you would have to imagine they have been watching him very closely. And of course, should the stars align, van der Merwe would qualify just in time for Scotland’s tour of South Africa. The country he barely knew existed against the world champions for whom he longed to play.

“If that was to happen, that would be strange, but it would be an awesome opportunity to show as a player what you’re about after leaving the country. I’m looking to play at the highest level possible, otherwise what am I playing for? When that opportunity comes, I’ll grab it with both hands.

“I’d love to think that I can make a difference (at international level). I’d like to think I can cause damage. Because when you play Champions Cup, you play against international boys and you think, well I’ve actually done alright. So I’d love to test myself if that opportunity comes.”

For now, all of that can wait. Cockerill has rolled out his big guns for the Challenge Cup visit of Wasps this Friday, and will, as he is fond of saying go ‘full-metal-jacket’ when they collide with a Glasgow team that seems to be losing its way over the PRO14 festive period.

Last year, Edinburgh didn’t quite have the cattle to sustain a challenge on two fronts. They topped their Champions Cup pool but limped over the line in the league and as a result were booted into Europe’s second tier.

Cockerill has grown the squad, his go-to men are fit and his attack has extra gears it could not find at vital moments in the previous campaign. Edinburgh sit at the summit of their Challenge Cup section and only two points off the pace in PRO14 Conference B.

“The past two years, we used the forwards up, used the forwards up, then box kicked and put pressure on, which worked. As a backline, you weren’t getting many touches,” explained van der Merwe. “Now, we have got a different game plan. You as a winger need to be more of a ball player now – you can’t just stand on the edge and run it. You have to use your brain, pass, make good decisions under pressure.

“Every single guy in the backline has good X-factor. That’s what we want to try and use more. Now we have got a backline that can cause damage and a forwards pack that can cause a lot of damage, so teams now are thinking, ‘Oh s**t, which way are they going to play?’

“We’re going to try and win the Challenge Cup and get into the semi-finals, even the final of the PRO14. Last year, we maybe couldn’t rotate as much. This year, you can rotate 15 boys and the quality doesn’t drop. We can attack both tournaments this season and see if we can win the PRO14, because we have definitely got the squad to do it.”

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'I knew nothing about Edinburgh. I didn't even know it was in Scotland. I'd never really heard of it'
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