Duhan van der Merwe leads emerging trend of rugby’s wonder wingers

<span>Duhan van der Merwe breaks clear after evading Henry Slade’s tackle to score the second of his tries against England.</span><span>Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images</span>
Duhan van der Merwe breaks clear after evading Henry Slade’s tackle to score the second of his tries against England.Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images

The hunt has been on for years. Will there ever be another onrushing winger formidable enough to be mentioned in the same breath as the late, great Jonah Lomu? Plenty have auditioned, from the fearsome Alesana Tuilagi and Nemani Nadolo to the massive Taqele Naiyaravoro and Joe Cokanasiga, without managing to beat Lomu’s career tally of 37 tries in 63 Tests between 1994 and 2002.

Increasingly, though, there is a new challenger. While Duhan van der Merwe may be nowhere near Lomu’s physical dimensions, he is an imposing enough specimen at 106kg and 1.93 metres tall. And last Saturday, amid the hurly-burly of Scotland’s Six Nations win over England, his Calcutta Cup hat-trick stretched his career tally to 26 tries in only 37 Tests since his debut against Georgia in October 2020.

Related: Townsend angry at being denied players for Scotland Six Nations training camps

His ratio of just over 0.7 tries per game is now better than those of Lomu, Bryan Habana, David Campese, Shane Williams, Joe Rokocoko and Jason Robinson, to name but a few wing legends. Barring a few distinguished former All Blacks including Doug Howlett, Christian Cullen, and Jeff Wilson, the only other major names in the frame are the serially prolific Julian Savea, who scored 46 tries in 56 Tests, and Will Jordan, whose 31 tries in 31 Tests currently places him at the top of the heap.

Van der Merwe, though, is not playing for a rampant All Black side cutting opponents to shreds on a weekly basis. He is representing Scotland and, in some ways, is only just getting started. At the age of 28 he should have several years of carnage still to wreak, with Italy the next potential speed bumps on Saturday week. If you were a betting man you would be tempted to back him, fitness permitting, to double his current try haul and propel himself into the top half-dozen deadliest finishers in the game’s history.

Which really would be a sensational feat for someone deemed surplus to requirements in his native land. Van der Merwe represented South Africa Under-20s before injury intervened and, eventually, he opted to head overseas, initially to Montpellier and then to Edinburgh. Aside from a season at Worcester he has been based in the Scottish capital since 2017.

And what a CV he is starting to construct. To date he has 14 tries in 16 Six Nations matches and sits just one behind Scotland’s record try scorer, Stuart Hogg, who registered 27 in his 100 Tests. If he has a similarly sharp-footed rival in Europe it is probably his Scotland teammate Darcy Graham but it is the kind of tries Van der Merwe is scoring that increasingly mark him out as something different.

Murrayfield at the weekend was another prime example. If he looked confident with the line at his mercy for his first score, his second from more than 60 metres was a stunner. To see him in thrilling counterattack mode, leaving the English cover for dead down the left touchline, was akin to watching a big cat at full tilt across the plains of Africa.

And if Finn Russell’s cross kick bounced up nicely for his third, England had long since received the message loud and clear. As at Twickenham last year, when his two tries helped to deliver another famous Scotland win, Van der Merwe’s finishing instinct is increasingly among the rugby world’s modern wonders. Not quite Lomu-esque yet, maybe, but the strength to bounce people off and the speed to leave them trailing is increasingly turning him into a box office draw wherever he plays.

His success is also highlighting an emerging trend in the modern game. For a while the gainline was all about forwards trucking it up or half-backs seeking a mismatch or big centres attacking soft shoulders down the middle. Now, with the pitch so congested and sides such as England embracing a midfield blitz defence, the most successful sides also tend to have serious attacking threats on the wide outside.

Cheslin Kolbe and Kurt-Lee Arendse of South Africa are not huge but they are two quite brilliant space invaders. Ireland’s success has been a consequence of umpteen factors but among them have been the all-round contributions of James Lowe and Mack Hansen. One of England’s failings, by contrast, has been a reluctance to trust at least one out-and-out strike runner on the wing. Every team needs some dynamism somewhere and the smarter coaches have realised that it pays to get the ball into the hands of their most lethal weapons more often.

Perhaps the ultimate example, with apologies to Scotland’s “Van the Man”, came in the Parisian “derby” between Racing 92 and Stade Francais at the weekend. The length-of-the-field try scored by Stade’s winger Peniasi Dakuwaqa has gone viral and deservedly so. Apart from arcing around in his own in-goal area, surging through his own posts, chipping and regathering the ball without decelerating and then burning off the cover to score at the other end, there was nothing at all to write home about.

The try of the decade? Quite possibly. Though we were making similar claims about Henry Arundell’s scintillating solo score for London Irish in Toulon not so long ago. Either way, thrilling long-range efforts unquestionably enhance the sport’s appeal, so much so that the game needs to incentivise more players to have a go from deep more often. As Van der Merwe is underlining, there is no better sight in rugby union than a supreme athlete exploring the art of the possible.

  • This is an extract taken from our weekly rugby union email, the Breakdown. To sign up, just visit this page and follow the instructions.