Duhan van Der Merwe discusses the pros and cons of veganism when his phone rings. “Sorry guys, do you mind if I record this quickly?” he asks, apologizing for a moment to accept a call from a potential new sponsor.
Van der Merwe is one of the new hot features of rugby. After finishing the Six Nations as the tournament’s top try-scorer, everyone wants a piece of Scotland’s winger.
He quickly returns from the call and, with the fridge filled only with vegan coconut milk, offers a round of beer as he sits down to tell his story.
The Scot Duhan van Der Merwe finished the Six Nations as the tournament’s best try-scorer
He could soon be playing against his brother Akker on the Lions tour of South Africa
Life has changed quickly for Van der Merwe. Not long ago, he was rejected by the South African system and told doctors his playing days could be limited. Today he is talked about in British and Irish Lions circles.
“I haven’t done that many interviews yet,” says the 110 kg back, with his African accent.
‘I was always worried about saying the wrong things. As a South African playing for Scotland – a project player by the residency rule – a lot of people wanted to get stuck in me. All I could do was try to speak at my performances. I wanted to use my performances to show how badly I wanted to be there. Now that I am playing well, I have gained a little more confidence to speak. ‘
Van Der Merwe is chatting in his Edinburgh home, where he is occasionally jumped by his two French bulldogs, Ziggy and Moose. He sips his beer and turns the clock back to his early rugby experiences with his older brother, Akker, who now plays a hooker for Sale and South Africa.
Van der Merwe made his debut in Scotland in October, scoring nine tries in nine starts
It’s not long ago that Van der Merwe (above) was rejected by the South African system
“It started in the garden at home in George, on the Western Cape,” he says. ‘Akker was older and stronger, so he begged me to play rugby one on one with him. He would say, “I promise I’ll get soft! You can go first!” Then he buried me every time. He ran all the way up to me, put me on my butt and left me with a bloody nose. There’s a reason they call him the evil warthog! ‘
During the summer holidays, the family went on a caravan holiday and stayed at the same campsite as the family of a young CJ Stander. All three were part of schoolboy rugby and represented South Africa at age group level. However, Van der Merwe’s progress was halted due to a serious injury.
‘I was picked up by SA Schools when I was 16 and a year later played with guys like Jessie Kriel, Handre Pollard and Malcom Marx. I tried to get into the seniors with the Bulls, but I had to have surgery on both of my knees. Then I came back and broke my wrist. Nothing went wrong with me. I was going to end up playing for the college team and, as far as pro rugby was concerned, that would have been the end for me.
‘I was injured the year the Baby Boks became the recording team for South Africa. If I had played for the Baby Boks in 2015, I wouldn’t have been allowed to play Test Rugby for anyone other than South Africa. We wouldn’t be sitting here having this conversation right now. It’s funny how it turns out, isn’t it? ‘
Van der Merwe traveled through Europe with his girlfriend Neeks.
Today, however, Van der Merwe is talked about in British and Irish Lions circles
‘I decided to get away from it all and went to Montpellier. That’s where it all started. I played a few games, but I was a young boy behind all these international rock stars and I had a problem with my hip. At the end of my contract, Edinburgh came for me, but I failed my medical treatment.
The bone in my pelvis had come loose. It was bad. I was thinking with my agent, “Where now?” I had just failed my medical treatment and my rugby wasn’t going anywhere. How would I pay for my physio and surgery? I was. Fortunately, Richard Cockerill offered me a lifeline and invited me to trial training for four weeks. I will always be grateful for that. They picked out my hip and I got it back.
My real estate agent mentioned the residency rule when I signed my contract, but it was never really part of my mind. I didn’t even play club rugby, so international rugby was miles away. I was so raw. As time went on Edinburgh changed me as a player and only then did the Scotland thing become real.
‘I was named player of the season and people started talking about international rugby. If you asked me two years ago if I wanted to play for South Africa or Scotland, I would have said Scotland. Edinburgh has done so much for me and I always felt like I wanted to give something back. My decision was made. South Africa never really supported me when I was young and injured. I felt abandoned. It has always been a great motivation for me to prove them wrong. ‘
Van der Merwe made his debut in Scotland in October, scoring nine tries in nine starts. He played every minute of the Six Nations, beating Brian O’Driscoll’s long-standing match record for defeated defenders.
He is from Edinburgh, where he is occasionally jumped by his two French bulldogs
He idolized All Blacks star Julian Savea as a youngster and now offers a similar power game
“Getting the chance to play for Scotland was very special,” he says. ‘My grandfather dropped me off at the airport in South Africa in January 2020 and the last thing he said was,’ If you play for Scotland, I’ll fly to you ‘. He always came to our games growing up, but he died before I got a chance with Scotland. I wanted to do it for him. I still think about him when I play. When I made my debut, my family had Scottish flags around the house, face paint, all dressed up. They love it. My brother was amazed and he called me to say how proud he was. ‘
The player cords from Van der Merwe’s Six Nations debut are still hanging on his door.
He idolized All Blacks star Julian Savea as a youngster and now, at 110kg, the 25-year-old offers a similar power play on the wing. He lifts 70kg dumbbells at the gym and after trying a vegan diet with his girlfriend for a few months, he eats 700g of steak in the evening to make him one of Europe’s most powerful gainline operators. He’s heading to Worcester next season, but there are a few things on his bucket list before heading south.
Warren Gatland will consider the winger for this summer tour of South Africa. He might even run into his brother, which would be a fitting chapter in the story that began with sibling duels in the Western Cape.
“How special would it be to play my brother on a Lions tour?” he says. Akker plays the best rugby of his career. I’m still fairly new to the international setup, but you see a strange post, someone naming you in their XV, and I’d absolutely love to try it. In the back of my mind I know they will announce the squad on May 6, but I just have to go out and do my best for Edinburgh and Scotland. When I get a call, you can’t get anything better than that. ‘