Duhan van Der Merwe is discussing the pros and cons of veganism when his phone rings. ‘Sorry guys, do you mind if I take this quickly?’ he asks, briefly excusing himself to take a call from a potential new sponsor.
Van der Merwe is one of rugby’s new hot properties. After finishing the Six Nations as the tournament’s top try scorer, everyone wants a piece of the Scotland winger.
He soon returns from the call and, with the fridge only stocked with vegan coconut milk, he offers up a round of beers as he settles down to tell his story.
Scotland’s Duhan van Der Merwe finished the Six Nations as the tournament’s top try scorer
He could soon potentially play 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 by doctors that his playing days could be limited. Nowadays, he is being talked about in British and Irish Lions circles.
‘I’ve not done too many interviews before,’ says the 110kg back, in his Afrikaans accent.
‘I was always worried about saying the wrong things. Being a South African playing for Scotland – a project player through the residency rule – a lot of people wanted to get stuck into me. All I could do was try to speak through my performances. I wanted to use my performances to show how much I wanted to be there. Now that I’m playing well, that’s given me a bit more confidence to speak up.’
Van Der Merwe is chatting at his home in Edinburgh, where he is occasionally jumped upon by his two French bulldogs, Ziggy and Moose. He takes a sip on his beer and turns back the clock to his early rugby experiences with his elder brother, Akker, who now plays hooker for Sale and South Africa.
Van der Merwe made his Scotland debut in October, scoring nine tries in nine starts
It was 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 stronger so he would beg me to play rugby with him one on one. He would say “I promise I’ll go soft! You can go first!” Then he would bury me every time. He’d run at me full tilt, sit me on my arse and leave me with a nosebleed. There’s a reason they call him the Angry Warthog!’
During the summer holidays, the family went on caravan holidays and stayed on the same campsite as the family of a young CJ Stander. All three rose up the ranks of schoolboy rugby and represented South Africa at age group level. However, Van der Merwe’s progress was halted by a serious injury.
‘I was picked up by SA Schools when I was 16, playing a year up with guys like Jessie Kriel, Handre Pollard and Malcom Marx. I was trying to get into the senior side at the Bulls but I needed surgery on both my knees. Then I came back and broke my wrist. Nothing was going for me. I was going to end up playing for the university team and, as far as pro rugby was concerned, that would have been the end for me.
‘I was injured the year that the Baby Boks became the capture team for South Africa. If I had played for the Baby Boks in 2015, I would not have been allowed to play Test rugby for anyone other than South Africa. We would not be sat here now having this conversation. It’s funny how things work out, isn’t it?’
With his girlfriend, Neeks, Van der Merwe embarked on a journey through Europe.
Van der Merwe (above) was also told by doctors that his playing days could be limited
However, nowadays Van der Merwe is being 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 kid behind all these international rockstars and I had with a problem my hip. At the end of my contract, Edinburgh came in for me, but I failed my medical.
‘The bone in my pelvis had come loose. It was bad. I was sitting with my agent thinking, “Where now?” I had just failed my medical and my rugby wasn’t going anywhere. How was I going to pay for my physio and surgery? That was me done. Fortunately, Richard Cockerill offered me a lifeline and invited me to train for four weeks on a trial. I’ll always be grateful for that. They sorted my hip out and I made it back.
‘My agent mentioned the residency rule when I signed my contract but it was never really part of my thinking. I wasn’t even playing club rugby so international rugby was miles away. I was so raw. As the time went by, Edinburgh transformed me as a player and only then did the Scotland thing become real.
‘I was named player of the season and people were starting to talk about international rugby. If you had asked me two years ago if I wanted to play for South Africa or Scotland, I would have said Scotland. Edinburgh have done so much for me and I always felt like I wanted to give back to them. My mind was made up. South Africa never really backed me when I was young and injured. I felt let down. Proving them wrong has always been a big motivation for me.’
Van der Merwe made his Scotland debut in October, scoring nine tries in nine starts. He played every single minute of the Six Nations, when he beat Brian O’Driscoll’s long-standing competition record for defenders beaten.
He is from Edinburgh, where he is occasionally jumped upon by his two French bulldogs
He idolised 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, “When you play for Scotland, I’m going to fly over and watch you”. He always came to our matches growing up, but he died before I got the chance with Scotland. I wanted to do it for him. I still think of him when I play. When I made my debut, my family had Scottish flags around the house, face paint, all kitted out. They love it. My brother was chuffed to bits and he phoned me to say how proud he was.’
The player lanyards from Van der Merwe’s Six Nations debut are still hung up on his door.
He idolised All Blacks star Julian Savea as a youngster and now, at 110kg, the 25-year-old offers a similar power game on the wing. He lifts 70kg dumbbells in the gym and, having tried a vegan diet with his girlfriend for a few months, eats 700g of steak in the evenings to help make him one of Europe’s most powerful gainline operators. Next season he will join Worcester, but there are a couple of things on his bucket list before he makes the move down south.
Warren Gatland will be considering the winger for this summer tour of South Africa. He could even come up against his brother, which would be a fitting chapter to the story that started with sibling duels back in the Western Cape.
‘How special would it be to play against my brother on a Lions tour?’ he says. ‘Akker’s playing the best rugby of his career. I’m still pretty new to the international set up but you see the odd post, someone naming you in their XV, and I would absolutely love to give it a shot. In the back of my head, I know they announce the squad on May 6th but I just need to go out there and do my best for Edinburgh and Scotland. If I got a call up, you can’t get anything better than that.’