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'This the first time we have played against each other since backyard rugby'

By Chris Jones
(Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images)

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Akker and Duhan van der Merwe will take their backyard family rugby battles onto the AJ Bell pitch on Saturday night in a Sale Sharks versus Edinburgh precursor to what they hope will be a history-making family clash when the British and Irish Lions face South Africa in a three-Test series next July.


Springboks forward Akker van der Merwe, 29, will be at hooker for Sale in the round two Heineken Champions Cup match while Edinburgh will include recently capped Scotland international Duhan, 25, on the left wing. 

With Akker back on the Springboks radar after winning three caps in 2018 and Duhan one of the form wings available to the Lions selectors, a potential head-to-head in the three Test series would allow the family to make rugby history.  

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The Burns brothers Freddie and Billy guest on the latest RugbyPass Offload show
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The Burns brothers Freddie and Billy guest on the latest RugbyPass Offload show

It is a prospect that Akker admits would be remarkable, something their parents back in South Africa would have to come to terms with. 

Sale hooker van der Merwe told RugbyPass: “I’m trying to play as consistently as possible to put myself back in Springboks mix and that is the goal. It would be a huge achievement and a dream for me to play against the Lions. 

“I don’t think it has ever happened where the host nation has one brother and the Lions also has (another) one. If that was to happen I don’t think mum and dad would even watch because they wouldn’t be able to pick a side. I have never played against Duhan, who is now two caps ahead of me.


We have spoken about him playing for Scotland and I’m very happy for him. I made my Springbok debut in Washington (against Wales) and the family could not be there and because of Covid, we couldn’t be at Murrayfield for Duhan’s debut. I had to watch the game on television.”

Besides playing in very different positions – Duhan inhabiting the wide-open spaces on the wing while Akker is in the middle of the front row – the brothers also physically worlds apart. 

Duhan is 6ft 4ins, 16st 6lbs and clean-shaven while his older brother is a bearded ball of physical energy, standing 5ft 7ins but exactly the same weight. Akker is known as the Angry Warthog, a nickname given to him by Nick Mallett, the ex-Springboks coach, when he saw him carry the ball into contact. 

Akker added: “Nick Mallett described me as running like an angry warthog in my first game for the Lions in 2014 and it has just stuck.”


Duhan was part of the South Africa squad that finished runners-up at the 2014 Junior World Championship alongside Handre Pollard and Jesse Kriel. He has averaged a try every other game for Edinburgh and was named the PRO14 players’ player of the season for 2019/20. He qualified for Scotland on residency and collected five caps during the autumn along with three tries to highlight his power and pace.

Both brothers have an eye for the try line which throws up the question – who is the quickest brother? “I was when we were younger,” said Akker, the brothers getting their pace from their mother, who was a sprinter, and dad, who played hooker. 

“Thankfully, it’s in the genes. I could probably take him on over five metres now but after that, no chance of me catching him. This the first time we have played against each other since backyard rugby when we went head to head. I had a bit of an advantage then because of the age gap but that doesn’t count anymore.

“Duhan has always been in the backs starting at school and I was a scrum-half, but that is now a few years and a few pounds ago! I’m very proud of him and hope to see Duhan playing in the Six Nations if the fixtures and travelling make it possible. 

“I’m very proud and want to be there to support him through his achievements. When he came over I don’t think it was in the back of his head to play for Scotland, but he played well, got the opportunity and I’m very happy he got the chance.”

The brothers have been the target of misinformation on Duhan’s Wikipedia entry which claims Akker is named after clarinettist Acker Bilk while Duhan was named after Irish folk musician Johnny Duhan.

Neither is true, Akker instead being a family nickname that has come down the generations “I’m not named after Acker Bilk. That is absolutely not true. My nickname (Akker) started with my grandfather, then my father and now me.”

Akker was born in Vanderbijlpark but grew up in George where both brothers played for Outeniqua High and became the sixth and seventh international rugby players produced by the school.

Akker put in another impressive performance when Sale lost at Toulon last weekend, late tries from Marland Yarde and James Phillips highlighting the attacking power the Sharks possesses, and they need to bounce back against Edinburgh who lost to 13-8 at home to La Rochelle. 

The Toulon game ended a difficult week that had started with Steve Diamond, the director of rugby, leaving Sale and Paul Deacon taking over the role on a temporary basis. 

“Edinburgh are a quality team with a lot of Scotland players and we are going to have to step up our performance for the full 80 minutes and not just for the last 20. It was obviously a shock to lose Dimes but Paul has stepped up and is doing a good job,” reckoned Akker.

“We played a lot of good rugby in Toulon and it was a case of errors when got into their 22 and we couldn’t convert those chances. But we stuck to our game plan and scored two beautiful tries. We will take confidence out of that.”

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