THERE was a time when a new international player could enjoy a honeymoon of relative anonymity. When, perhaps for his first full season, he would remain something of an unknown quantity for his opponents and surprise them with his various virtues.
That time is firmly in the past, as Duhan van der Merwe was reminded on Friday night as he made his Scotland debut in the comfortable 48-7 win against Georgia at BT Murrayfield. It was apparent that the 25-year-old had been earmarked as a danger man right from his first possession, when three defenders closed him down and a fourth stood ready to add some additional muscle should the winger quickly get back to his feet.
“I was actually saying to myself after the first five minutes ‘Wow, I feel really marked, there’s not much space’,” Van der Merwe said after the match. “Obviously in international rugby they really analyse you and stuff, so I just have to work around that and find ways to beat guys.”
He did eventually work around that, scoring the sixth of his team’s eighth tries after tracking inside in search of an opening which was duly supplied by an inside pass from Finn Russell. But he proved his worth well before then. Not only through his individual efforts, but also because the attention and man power which the Georgians devoted to him allowed space to open up elsewhere.
“We spoke about getting myself on the ball more than 10 times, and that was my mission going into this game,” Van der Merwe continued. “So, I just said to myself ‘Get on Finn’s inside’, and luckily enough he put me away. Getting my first dot down was amazing – it was very special to score on my debut.
“I loved it. It was a very emotional day for me. I was very proud to get my first cap for Scotland. I came to Edinburgh in 2017 and three and a half years later I think I’m a completely different player. It was very special for me.
“I was obviously nervous, but Gregor [Townsend] and the coaches just said to me to get out and do my thing. That calmed me down a lot, but you are going to be nervous getting your first cap. Now that’s done, hopefully I’ll lose a bit of nervousness next time . . . . But I probably won’t.”
Next time should be Saturday, when Scotland play Wales in the Six Nations match that was postponed at short notice back in March. The back three for the last competitive fixture – the 28-17 win over France – was Stuart Hogg, Sean Maitland and Blair Kinghorn, but there are several potential reasons why Townsend will change that.
First, having been one of the Barbarians players to breach Covid protocols and bring about the cancellation of the game against England, Maitland could be subject to disciplinary action by Scotland, for all that Townsend declined to offer an instant judgement on Friday night. Second, Darcy Graham was out injured in February and March, whereas against Georgia he showed glimpses of his best form. And third, Van der Merwe, ineligible in the spring, is too potent an attacking threat to be ignored.
Kinghorn started as full-back on Friday but will surely surrender the No 15 jersey to Hogg, the returning captain. He can play on the wing too, so it makes sense to have him on the bench covering the back three, with Graham and Van der Merwe keeping their places out wide.
Van der Merwe knows himself that he is far from being the finished article at Test level. But he also knows, as do the coaches, that the best way to help him keep up his remarkable progress is simply to keep picking him.
He will continue to look naive at times. The conventional wisdom is that only once a player has been in 20 to 30 Tests does he really mature at this level, so by that reckoning it could be close to the next World Cup before we see him at his best. Just how good he will be by then remains uncertain, but if he keeps up the remarkable progress he has made since signing for Edinburgh as a raw talent in the summer of 2017, he will be an asset of serious magnitude.