The Scotland winger has revealed that has been targeted by social media trolls as he prepares to make his debut for the British and Irish Lions
He will line up against Japan at Murrayfield on Saturday afternoon then head to South Africa for the eight-match tour which will culminate in a three-Test series against the world champions.
Van der Merwe was a junior Springbok himself, helping them reach the final of the Under-20 World Championships in 2014, and dreamed of one day winning a full cap.
Injuries stunted his progress and he headed to France for a spell with Montpellier. It never happened for him in the Top 14 and it was only when he arrived in Edinburgh that he managed to get his career back on track and make good on the promise he had shown in those early days.
Van der Merwe’s muscular attacking wing play set the Pro14 alight and once he’d fulfilled the three-year residency requirement Gregor Townsend couldn’t get him into the Scotland team fast enough.
Since making his international debut against Georgia last October, the player has scored eight tries in ten Tests and now the fates have conspired to send him back to South Africa and the possibility of facing the Springboks in the red of the Lions.
But his switch of allegiance hasn’t gone down well with everyone and some of the reaction has caused him to take stock.
“I’ve had a think about that and I’m just going to ignore all those kind of bits,” he said. “I’ve just been ignoring all the stuff that people have been saying on social media. I know how I feel in my heart sitting here and representing the Lions and that’s all that matters.
“Oh, you get the odd comment like ‘He’s obviously born in South Africa, he shouldn’t be representing Scotland or the Lions’ - all those kinds of bits. I don’t really want to go into detail about that. I just put all that stuff behind me and focus on what I can focus on.”
Asked if the criticism motivates him, he replied: “Yes it does.
“All my friends are all very excited to watch the games live on television and my family are backing me, which is the most important thing for me.
“All my family and mates are behind me and they can’t wait to see me play.
“I left South Africa at the age of 20 and if you’d asked me then if I ever thought I’d represent the British and Irish Lions on a tour to South Africa, I’d have said no.
“I obviously left quite early. I really started my career here, in Edinburgh. I’m not going to go back [to South Africa] and say, look, this is what I achieved as a player, like ‘screw you guys’. I’m just focusing on myself going back as a Lions player and I’m absolutely buzzing.”
The Springboks have not played a Test since beating England in the 2019 World Cup final but there is unlikely to be much mystery about how they will play against the Lions. It will be a ferocious battle and van der Merwe will try to use whatever local knowledge he can.
“A lot of us know what kind of game plan they’re going to try and bring,” he said. “They’re big men, physical men. They haven’t played for two years, so who knows what they’re going to bring?
“I speak Afrikaans, so if I hear something on the field I’ll feed it back to the boys, to be honest.”
His four years at Edinburgh may have been the making of him but van der Merwe will try his luck in England next season having signed for Worcester Warriors.
He will be back on familiar terrain against Japan with the added bonus of there being 16,500 supporters inside Murrayfield. The stadium was empty when he made his Test debut and he has yet to play for Scotland in front of fans.
“It’s been a very long time,” he said. “I don’t even know what it’s going to feel like, playing in front of fans, to be honest. We had some fans over in Jersey - I think it was 1,500 people [for a public training session] - and it actually felt like a lot. So yeah, I’m buzzing to play in front of 16,000 fans.
“I've obviously played for Edinburgh for four years at BT Murrayfield so hopefully the Scottish supporters will support me. I haven’t played in front of Scottish supporters since I made my Test debut. I’m looking forward to it.”
The camp in Jersey was useful preparation but van der Merwe knows it takes more than a fortnight to blend a team. However, he does feel he is benefiting from having Scotland pair Gregor Townsend and Steve Tandy in the Lions coaching set-up.
“Obviously, it makes it a little bit easier for me, knowing how Gregor wants to play and how Steve's defensive system works. That helped a lot. Coming in and getting all the new calls, it definitely helped because I knew some of it and I knew the defensive system of Steve Tandy. That helped a lot.
“I don’t want to go into too much detail. We’ve got a gameplan we want to try and play and we’ve obviously got a defensive system that we want to stick to. But something we want to try and do tomorrow and stick to our systems.
“It’s our first game together. We’re going to go out and play to win. We’ve only been together for two weeks, and yeah, the boys are looking forward to it. We just want to go out and play the best we can and hopefully we’ll get the result.”