British & Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland showed the ruthless selection streak that has successfully won a series in Australia in 2013 and tied with the All Blacks in 2017, when he named his first Test team to face the Springboks on Saturday.
Scrumhalf Conor Murray, named as tour captain when lock Alun Wyn Jones was ruled out with a shoulder injury, has only made the bench for the first Test. Scotland’s Ali Price will start at scrumhalf instead, indicating that Gatland wants snappier service and a better running game.
Price, along with fullback Stuart Hogg and wing Duhan van der Merwe is one of three Scotland internationals in the starting lineup. It’s the first time any Scot has started for the Lions since 1997.
For Van der Merwe, who played alongside the likes of Handre Pollard, Jesse Kriel and Malcolm Marx and in SA Under-20 colours, it’s a fairytale outcome. He left South Africa as a slightly disillusioned former Junior Springbok in 2016 and returned a respected Lion.
The George-born Van der Merwe is 1.93m tall, weighs 105kg and runs 100m in under 11 seconds. He played two years for the SA under-18 team and also for the Junior Springboks before leaving the country of his birth.
Van der Merwe, 25, was a schoolboy star at Hoerskool Outeniqua in George, making the SA Schools team twice in 2012 and 2013 before moving to the Bulls after he matriculated.
Initially, dominating age group rugby came easily for the powerhouse wing. Only 18, he was selected in a wider SA under-20 training squad and was then called up as a replacement for the Junior Boks at the World Championships in New Zealand in 2014, just days after turning 19. Van der Merwe came off the bench in the final, which South Africa lost 21-20 against England.
Although Van der Merwe was in all South Africa’s notable youth squads and was in the ‘system’ to become a Springbok, he opted to further his career in France in 2016 after an injury-plagued 2015 season and then on to Edinburgh, where he made his mark.
After three years of playing for Edinburgh, Van der Merwe was selected for the Scotland Test team in October 2020, where the man from George faced Georgia in the colours of his adopted country. That sparked a stellar few months that culminated in some bruising displays in the Six Nations.
Naturally, Van der Merwe’s bulk and speed, coupled with good skills and ability to read the game, caught Gatland’s eye.
In another twist of fate that led to his Test selection, Van der Merwe was able to play for Scotland because of the vagaries of World Rugby’s eligibility system. In 2014, the Junior Springboks were officially South Africa’s ‘next senior representative national fifteens team.’
In simple terms, because he played for the Junior Boks, Van der Merwe was ineligible for any other national team in future, subject to some conditions. And in those conditions, exists a loophole. Not all federations have deemed their under-20 side as the ‘next senior representative team.’
World Rugby’s Regulation 8 states that both teams have to be considered ‘national representative teams’ for ineligibility to kick in. Van der Merwe’s two Junior Bok caps were against opponents (Samoa and England) and neither nominated their under-20s as the second most important team in their federation.
He didn’t know it then but those two appearances didn’t cost him a Test future with Scotland, and now the Lions, which they could have.
Van der Merwe has made the most of that slice of luck. He is to be Test Lion, joining South African-born and schooled players such as Mike Catt (1997) and CJ Stander (2017) in the famous club.
AWJ back to lead Lions
Jones, who dramatically recovered from a dislocated shoulder sustained in the Lions first pre-tour match against Japan in late June, recovered in just 17 days. He was named as captain for the match where he will slot in alongside the impressive Maro Itoje in the second row.
Another big Gatland surprise was the selection of bruising England lock Courtney Lawes at blindside flank. Lawes has operated on the side of the scrum for both England and the Lions on this tour, and will add to the tourists’ lineout prowess and physicality in contact.
Ireland’s Jack Conan was preferred at No 8 to Wales stalwart Taulupe Faletau. Conan is 1.93m tall and tips the scales at 114kg. He’s another big unit in a back row designed to match the Boks physically and also attempt to disrupt the home team’s lineout.
Conan has already made four appearances on the tour and has a staggering 100% tackle completion with 32 tackles in those games. That kind of accuracy is certainly an aspect Gatland admired while his ability to make turnovers is not insignificant.
“The impact the set piece has on the game is generally huge,” Jones said. “Knowing the players we are coming up against, the set piece is a pillar of the Springboks’ game but there is an opportunity and variation for us, even coming off the bench. It will add and aid our attack, so the set piece is a very big focal point considering the team we’re up against.”
As expected, Wales flyhalf Dan Biggar starts in the crucial position with Ireland’s Robbie Henshaw preferred at inside centre. England’s Elliot Daly is picked at outside centre where his booming left-boot adds another layer to the Lions play. He can also slot penalties from beyond the halfway line.
“In my four Tours as a Lions coach, this was by far the hardest Test selection I have been involved in,” said Gatland.
“We couldn’t have asked for more from the players so far; they’ve all put their hands up and made picking a starting XV incredibly difficult. In truth, we would have been happy with any number of different combinations across the 23, however, we’re very pleased with the side we’ve settled on.
“We know what we’re coming up against on Saturday. It’s going to be an arm wrestle, there’s no doubt about it. We’ll need to front up physically and be ready to go from the first whistle. When we played SA ‘A’ last week we probably took a bit too long to get into the game, something we can’t afford to do that again this weekend.
“We need to make sure we play in the right areas of the field, not give them easy territory and take our chances when they come.
“While the stands will be empty in Cape Town Stadium, we know Lions fans from across the home nations will be cheering us on back home. We’ll do our best to get the win.”
British & Irish Lions – 15 Stuart Hogg (Scotland), 14 Anthony Watson (England), 13 Elliot Daly (England), 12 Robbie Henshaw (Ireland), 11 Duhan van der Merwe (Scotland), 10 Dan Biggar (Wales), 9 Ali Price (Scotland), 8 Jack Conan (Ireland), 7 Tom Curry (England), 6 Courtney Lawes, 5 Alun Wyn Jones (captain, Wales), 4 Maro Itoje (England), 3 Tadhg Furlong (Ireland), 2 Luke Cowan-Dickie (England), 1 Wyn Jones (Wales).
Substitutes: 16 Ken Owens (Wales), 17 Rory Sutherland (Scotland), 18 Kyle Sinckler (England), 19 Tadhg Beirne (Ireland), 20 Hamish Watson (Scotland), 21 Conor Murray (Ireland), 22 Owen Farrell (England), 23 Liam Williams (Wales). DM
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