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'I remember sitting with his dad in the office': The Springboks on the Lion that got away

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Getty Images)

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Duhan van der Merwe is a Lions player who is set to attract much focus on this year’s tour against the Springboks, the South African-born Scotland recruit heading back to play in his homeland for the first time since he left the provincial Blue Bulls in 2016 and embarked on an adventure that took him to Edinburgh via a one-year Montpellier pit stop.   


The soon-to-be 26-year-old became Scottish-eligible last year under the three-year residency rule and he went on to enjoy a stellar first season under Gregor Townsend, playing in all ten of Scotland’s matches, starting nine and scoring eight tries – a tremendously impressive strike rate that caught the attention of Warren Gatland. 

Van der Merwe will soon become a Worcester Warriors player, ex-Springboks assistant Alan Solomons tempting him to enlist for a stint in the Gallagher Premiership, and he will head to England fresh from participating in a Lions tour that could leave the Springboks to rue him as one that got away.  

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RugbyPass is sharing unique stories from iconic British and Irish Lions tours to South Africa in proud partnership with The Famous Grouse, the Spirit of Rugby
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RugbyPass is sharing unique stories from iconic British and Irish Lions tours to South Africa in proud partnership with The Famous Grouse, the Spirit of Rugby

It was 2014 when van der Merwe had the ear of South African officials, the winger being a replacement in the Junior Springboks side defeated by a point in the U20s World Cup final in Auckland by an England side that featured current Test team talisman Maro Itoje along with Nick Tompkins and Billy Burns, who have since been respectively capped by Wales and Ireland.  

In time, van der Merwe would also switch allegiance and his imminent return to South Africa to take on his native country was a talking point willingly embraced this week by Rassie Erasmus, the Springboks director of rugby.  

“Jacques (Nienaber, Boks head coach) was the high-performance manager in SA Rugby and he was helping all the teams and the Junior Springboks fell under him. He [van der Merwe] was in the Handre Pollard team that played in New Zealand and lost in the final, so we know him pretty well. I remember sitting with him and his dad in the office discussing his future in 7s and I remember him having trials at the 7s. He played SA schools, SA U20s and I remember sitting with his dad in the office and getting him into the 7s set-up and remember him trialling with the 7s. 


“Not sure why he didn’t make that or what his decision was after that or did he want to go into the 15s game? He has come the full path in SA Rugby and we are not at all in the mindset of because he is not playing here, he doesn’t deserve to play anywhere else. 

“We feel that if a guy goes over there, like CJ Stander or whoever, good for him. The way he [van der Merwe] has played nobody can argue, and it’s weird in a way – we are proud of him but when we play against him it is going to be tough. We are happy for him. We know him really well and he would obviously know most of our guys fairly well.”


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