Duhan van der Merwe will start at wing for the Lions against the team of his birth country, South Africa

Credit: REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

South Africa have been warned that if they launch "a few verbals" the way of countryman, Lions wing, Duhan van der Merwe, in the way that cricket’s Graeme Smith famously did to Kevin Pietersen, the ploy is only likely to backfire and "make him more determined and more aggressive."

Warren Gatland has told the Scotland wing to expect plenty of attention from the opposition although the man who has helped steer van der Merwe to this point, former Edinburgh head coach, Richard Cockerill, believes that the scrutiny and pressure will only serve to lift his game.

Van der Merwe, 25, a former Springbok under-20 player who featured for South Africa in a losing Junior World Cup final against a Moro Itoje-captained England in Auckland in 2014, was signed by Edinburgh in 2017 after an unproductive 12 month stint at Jake White’s Montpellier. Van der Merwe actually failed a medical on arrival but Cockerill had enough faith in him to persevere.

“Duhan has improved out of sight,” said Cockerill who parted ways with Edinburgh only last week. “Genetically he is blessed with exceptional raw pace. Give him 60 metres to run it in and he will burn you. He is a big, aggressive man who knows his way to the try-line. He’s got a great step, too, off his left and I’m not surprised he has made it this far. Every time he has been asked to step-up he has, from starting with us into the Pro 14, on into the Test arena with Scotland and now the Lions. 

“His sort of pace can’t be coached and given what a physical lump he is, he can bump people off in the tackle also. A fresh, motivated Duhan is as dangerous as they come. As for sledging him, he’ll shrug it off. Temperamentally he is sound. It will only make him more determined, more aggressive. You’re better off being nice to him.”

Van der Merwe tries to evade a tackler during the Lions vs Stormers tour match

Credit: Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images/Getty Images

Van der Merwe was a stand-out schoolboy, twice featuring in the prestigious Craven week tournaments. The 2014 South Africa under-20 side that lost 21-20 to England was captained by current Springbok fly-half, Handre Pollard, with van der Merwe coming off the bench in the second half in that final.  Injury and a lack of opportunity saw him pack his bags as many South Africans have done and head overseas. He was not a Project Player in the way that certain Scotland and Ireland players were targeted and invited to those countries with a view to qualifying for their adopted countries on the three-year residency ruling (now increased to five years) but the possibility would have been in his mind.

Van der Merwe is not the first overseas-born player to represent the Lions, the list stretching as far back to the 1904 and 1908 tours when the likes of Pat McEvedy was to return eventually to his homeland and go on to become president of the New Zealand Rugby Union. In more recent times, and in slightly different qualification circumstances, South African-born duo, Mike Catt (1997 and 2001) and Matt Stevens (2005 and 2013) have played for the Lions while Riki Flutey has the unusual distinction of playing against the Lions for Wellington in 2005 and representing them four years later.

Given that all the tests are behind closed doors there is no chance that van der Merwe will be barracked from the stands for his change of allegiance. If anything, South Africans recognise his achievement.

“We’re proud of what he has done,” former World Cup-winning fly-half, Joel Stransky told Telegraph Sport. “Of course he might have got a bit of stick if there had been fans there but it takes guts to do what he did when he saw that his career had stalled, to up sticks and head to a foreign country where it can be even harder to make your mark as an outsider. South Africans leave our shores for all sorts of reasons and there are no gimmes as to whether you succeed.  Duhan is obviously from a close family [older brother, Akker, is a hooker at Sale Sharks] and that support has been important. He has done something really special in making the Lions team and we should applaud that.”

Van der Merwe was recommended to Scotland director of rugby, Scott Johnson, by then Montpellier attack coach, Scott Wisemantel, later to fill that role with England and now with the Wallabies.

“We got Duhan cheap as chips because he simply wasn’t good enough at that time,” said Cockerill. “He has made himself what he is. There were frailties in his defence but he has worked bloody hard on that. He is smarter at reading the play these days, getting in the right position to deal with the high ball. He is not the most natural footballer out there but he knows his strengths and weaknesses. He knows that he will have to pre-set against [Cheslin] Kolbe, not chase him laterally or he will get done by his feet. Duhan has proved for Scotland and on this tour that he can compete at this level. He fully deserves his shot.”

Lions team to face South Africa in first Test