Saturday will complete an extraordinary rise to Test level prominence for Lions winger Duhan van der Merwe, the 26-year-old who played for South Africa in the final of the 2014 Junior World Cup in New Zealand before embarking on an adventure that resulted in him qualifying for Scotland under the three-year residency rule last autumn.
Ten times he went on to play for Scotland, starting nine games, scoring eight tries, finishing the recent Guinness Six Nations as the championship’s top try-scorer and then going on to earn selection on May 6 in Warren Gatland’s Lions squad.
Competition for backfield places on the tour has since been immense but van der Merwe, who has been criticised in his homeland for his allegiance switch, eventually did enough to ensure he will start this Saturday against his native Springboks, Josh Adams the unlucky Lions wide man to lose out on selection.
Handed the No11 shirt, van der Merwe will have his work cut out to impress as his direct opponent will be the No14-wearing Cheslin Kolbe, the darling of the Springboks who demonstrated his explosive prowess with his exquisite footwork when scoring in last week’s midweek win by South Africa A over the Lions.
Van der Merwe wasn’t involved in that match, Gatland starting Louis Rees-Zammit on the left wing with Anthony Watson on the right after Adams was a late withdrawal due to his partner giving birth to their daughter in Wales, an arrival he watched over Zoom.
Rassie Erasmus recalls Duhan’s fork in the road moment with South African rugby. https://t.co/DLQpFrcs0u
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) May 30, 2021
That emotional week coupled with some niggles which left Adams underperforming in Saturday’s win over the Stormers eventually tipped the selection battle in the favour of van der Merwe and Gatland already has the South African Scotsman prepared to encounter hostility when he plays for the Lions this weekend.
“There is going to be a real challenge,” he said about van der Merwe going head-to-head against Kolbe in the Lions’ Test series opener. “Cheslin didn’t get many opportunities. He got one opportunity in that A game and made the most of it. We can’t afford to do what we did in that A game and kick the ball down his throat. We hopefully won’t be giving him as much time and space on the ball on Saturday.
“It’s a challenge for him. I spoke to Duhan yesterday [Tuesday] and said to him what is coming at the weekend and he was fully aware because I presume every time he touches the ball they will be trying to hit him with everything they have got. There will probably be some verbals at him as well, so he is well aware of what is at stake but he has been incredibly relaxed.
“The way he has been running with the ball and beating defenders and also scoring tries, the top try-scorer in the Six Nations. It was a really tough call leaving Josh Adams out. I spoke to Josh yesterday and said that was such a tough call for us. He had a pretty emotional week last week with the birth of his child and then the next couple of days checking in and by his own admission probably didn’t play as well as he normally would on the Saturday and that is completely understandable with the week he had.
“He had a little knock on his hip and quite a significant blow to his sternum that was pretty sore as well. Tough call but we made the decision and I spoke to him about that. For a number of players I spoke to, I showed them some stats from the previous tours of how the Test team from Test one to Test two to Test three how many changes had been made traditionally. Everyone, even though they are not involved, will hopefully still be in the picture and will still get opportunities.”
“We’re all really proud”
– Two players chosen on May 6 by the Lions as Edinburgh players have been included for Saturday’s first Test versus the Springboks as warriors from Worcester #LionsRugby #CastleLionsSeries #RSAvBILhttps://t.co/z4JrndNdGZ
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) July 21, 2021
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