Duhan van der Merwe: Playing for Montpellier was like a holiday

Edinburgh winger Duhan van der Merwe used to play for Montpellier. Picture: Gary Hutchison/SNS
Edinburgh winger Duhan van der Merwe used to play for Montpellier. Picture: Gary Hutchison/SNS
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It says something about the modern game when you find yourself listening to Edinburgh’s Duhan van der Merwe, a winger who stands 6ft 4in tall and tips the scales at 16-odd stones, complaining that his opposite number for Montpellier in next weekend’s European Champions Cup tie is going to take some stopping.

“A massive, massive guy,” says Van der Merwe, who spent a year at Montpellier playing alongside the giant Fijian Nemani Nadolo before joining Edinburgh.

“A very nice guy,” the South African continues. “He has a few kilos on me, maybe a few metres! He is a very nice guy. Very skilful. He will definitely be a threat. We will work hard this week on how to stop him. We will have to put double shots on him. Him coming at you is a bit scary so we have to focus on how to stop him and go low on him. It is the only way.”

Both men prefer the left wing which means that Darcy Graham, all 12 stones of him, could in theory be tasked with halting the flying Fijian who is listed as 6ft 4in and over 20 stones; a fitting metaphor for the match as a whole – a David and Goliath encounter where the visitors are searching desperately for a slingshot of some sort that could hurt Montpellier in France.

Edinburgh have only just regained a place in the Champions Cup after five years spent in the relative comfort of the second-tier Challenge Cup. In contrast, the French outfit have a cast of superstars, many of them South African thanks to World Cup-winning coach Jake White who originally added Van der Merwe to the roster.

Just 21 when he joined Montpellier, the winger struggled to make an impact but moved to Edinburgh arguably just as he was turning the corner.

Listening to him talk about life in the south of France, you have to wonder why he ever moved.

“It felt like a holiday,” Van der Merwe looks suitably embarrassed to admit as much. “The weather was so nice. Training was hard but not as hard as it is here. The sun was always shining and the French lifestyle was so chilled and laid back. It basically felt like it was one big holiday for a year, and then I got here and learnt what was what. France was very nice.

“Basically Jake [White] approached me through my agent. I arrived and there was maybe 15 other South Africans which made life a lot easier. Things didn’t go as expected as I was basically up against the best in the world. That made it quite tough for me as a youngster coming over and wanting to play professional rugby. It was tough. I was just a junior competing against internationals.

“They had just signed Nadolo and Joe Tomane. They had Timoci Nagusa, Benjamin Fall. I was probably sixth in line. I got my first cap [against Pau] just before new year which I enjoyed a lot as I got a try as well.

“The season went on and in January /February I got approached by Edinburgh and signed and by the end of the season I had four other games. One of them was in the [Top14] quarter-finals when I came off the bench against Racing 92 at Altrad Stadium where we lost. That was quite special. Although I had not played a lot and signed for another club I still managed to be named on the bench for the quarter finals.”

The move to Edinburgh did at least get Van der Merwe what he was after, some serious game time in the starting XV. He played 14 league matches for Edinburgh last season and scored eight tries while doing so. A handy return if not quite matching Tim Visser’s best ever figures of 14 touchdowns in one season of the old Magners League.

Van der Merwe not only shares the same body shape as Edinburgh’s highest ever try scorer but his game mirrors the Dutchman’s as well. The South African is strong with the ball in hand, much more likely to look for contact than Visser, but he is a little less assured in his defensive duties.

The man he was marking managed a hat-trick of tries last weekend as Benetton scored five in all against an Edinburgh defence that proved Cadbury’s don’t make the biggest flakes after all. If the Italian outfit can carve Edinburgh open at will you have to worry what Montpellier might do to them.

“If you take Montpellier at the moment, it’s probably the best of the best,” says the man who should know, “it’s basically a World XV. Take their backline, where they’ve got guys like Francois Steyn, Ruan Pienaar, Johan Goosen, Jan Serfontein and that’s just a few of the names. So as individuals and as a team it’s going to be a massive challenge for us, but that’s why we play the game.

“I think Edinburgh will definitely be a lot fitter than Montpellier but I think they will play a slower brand of rugby because they have some massive guys in their squad. They’ll probably use them more where we would probably like to play a fast-tempo game because we’ve worked really hard on our skills in pre-season. We’ve got backs like Blair Kinghorn, and if you give him time and space he can cause real damage.

“That wasn’t our best performance [against Benetton],” he continues. “We weren’t very happy. It’s like a mindswitch where we hadn’t turned on as we’d want to. It’s not that we can’t make tackles and we have a very good system but we just switched off and that caused a team like Benetton to score tries. We’ve had a really good defence for the past year, one of the best out there, so I’m not too worried about teams like Montpellier.”

You hope that the affable South African is equally upbeat after the match.