FINN RUSSELL’s ability to grab a game by the scruff of the neck and throw it into a whole new direction with a sublime piece of imagination and precise display of execution is internationally renowned, but Duhan van der Merwe believes the playmaker’s value to the team reaches deeper into something far more intuitive than his world-class kicking, passing and running game.
The 6ft 4ins and 106kgs winger spoke with impressive candour last week about how he struggles at times to cope with set-backs on the pitch, and revealed the important role Russell has played in helping him regather focus so that he can continue to be one of the most effective ball-carriers in the side.
A classic case in point was during Scotland’s final World Cup warm-up match against Georgia at Murrayfield a fortnight ago, when thing’s didn’t go the home side’s way during a disjoined first half, and van der Merwe began to lose his way.
“There was a period when I had a bit of head loss for a couple of minutes and he [Russell] said: ‘Do you fancy carrying? –and he got me on ball again,” explained the South African wide man. “I made the switch and he saw that and showed the way he matured. He is a leader in our squad and for him to come up to me knowing that I was down or whatever and he wanted to get me on board and back in the game was quite special.
“I thanked him for that after the game and he just said: ’The head loss came on, but we need you’.”
Van der Merwe went on to score two of Scotland’s five tries in a comprehensive, in the end, 33-6 win over Georgia. The first coming after Russell’s inch-perfect cross-kicking sent the winger into space on the left.
Meanwhile, the South African born wide man stressed that he has taken steps to cut down on those moments when he drifts out of matches, and promised that it won’t be an issue when Scotland kick-off their World Cup campaign against the country of his birth a week today.
“I live for perfection and want to give my best for Scotland,” he said. “When you make a mistake then another mistake it can sometimes get to you, but I have been working on that over the years and it is definitely loads better.
“The Georgia game was probably a confidence booster for me, being able to make that switch in just a couple of minutes.
“Aaron Walsh is our mental skills coach. He is at the Chiefs as well and is a brilliant guy,” van der Merwe continued. “I have sat down with him, and it is amazing how he understands me.
“He said after the Georgia game that it was brilliant to see me make that switch back after four minutes, but next time let’s get it down to two minutes to get you back into the game again, so I’ll keep on working with him.
“There will always be mistakes which is not great for us perfectionists. Sometimes when I make a mistake I shy away for a wee bit. It’s quite tough mentally at times but having Walshy with us the squad is someone I can work with on things and I have got loads better.
“I sometimes don’t have a lot of opportunities when I look and think: ‘I can actually score here’. So, when I miss out on that opportunity to get points for the team I am tough on myself with that. I feel: ‘Look I had a real good opportunity and knocked the ball on’ . I immediately think that is an opportunity missed, and you don’t often get a chance to get back into things straight away if you miss a chance like a back-rower who has to make tackles of get in the ruck. On the wing if you miss an opportunity it gets a bit lonely for two or three minutes when you have a think about everything. I have to keep working on that.”
The 28-year-old, who came through the ranks in the rugby mad city of George in the Western Cape, added that his background will not be a complicating factor if he is selected next Sunday, having stressed regularly in the past that he now views Scotland as his rugby home because that’s where his faltering career took off after former Edinburgh head coach Richard Cockerill offered him a full-time contract in 2017 despite his having failed a medical.
“I’m looking at the South Africa game as simply another Test match because if I get too emotional about being born there it may affect the way I prepare,” said van der Merwe.
“Obviously, it is a big Test match because it is the first game of the World Cup, but I don’t think I have anything to prove because my career started in Scotland. All I want to do is go well for Scotland.
“I like the way South Africa are playing at the moment because they have been mixing it up a fair bit but we know their power game is something they will always go back to, so we know what is coming and it is about meeting that challenge head-on,” he added.
With van der Merwe currently on 20 tries from 31 appearances (a 65 percent strike rate), Darcy Graham on 19 tries in 35 appearances (54 percent) and Kyle Steyn on nine from 13 appearances (69 percent), there is no shortage of firepower available on the wing for Scotland’s at the moment.
While questions persist about van der Merwe’s resolve under the high ball and his game awareness, his bulk, pace and eye for the try-line mean it would be a shock if he were to miss out on selection against the world champions in sevens days’ time.
“I like the physical side of things,” he concluded. “Sometimes I just have to offer up my body and run into big forwards and if I have to do that for the team then I will do it any time of the day.”