28 September 2023

~5 minutes read

Two BKT URC giants winging it for club and country on the biggest stage

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Two BKT URC giants winging it for club and country on the biggest stage

Duhan van der Merwe against Mack Hansen is shaping as one of the big individual matchups when Scotland play Ireland at the Rugby World Cup. It’s Edinburgh versus Connacht and it’s going to be a clash of two styles and two cultures.

Scotland will play Romania before taking on Ireland in their final Pool match, but reflecting on the latest round of World Cup matches, two of the standouts were Van der Merwe and Hansen.

Both players showed great form last weekend: Van der Merwe for Scotland against Tonga and Hansen for Ireland against South Africa. Both scored tries and both emerged victorious.

Van der Merwe, South African born and raised, has been in Scotland for the past six years. Hansen, from Canberra in Australia, is a more recent arrival, having got to Ireland in 2021 and qualified for Ireland through his Cork-born mother.

The wing duo immediately made their mark, and their club form was comfortably translated at Test level.

Van der Merwe consistently raves about his rugby evolving in Scotland and he speaks with fondness, respect and admiration of the coaches in Scotland, both at Edinburgh and at Test level. They are the ones who have taught him to understand his game, to appreciate his natural strengths and they are the ones who continue to educate him about space, awareness and seeing the game in totality. They are also the ones who focus on the positive but not at the expense of those areas in which they continue to grow his individual game.

Scotland’s key play-maker Finn Russell spoke of the need to keep Van der Merwe involved throughout a game, by talking, by barking instructions, by encouraging him to look for work, to attempt the miracle run and to not be disillusioned if it doesn’t work the first time.

Van der Merwe, in media interviews pre the World Cup, spoke at length about Russell’s mental strength and leadership and the value of having such a general on his inside. Van der Merwe acknowledged a tendency to drift out of games if things aren’t going his way. He also spoke of being hard on himself if he made mistakes.

Enter Russell, whose positivity is the tonic among the Scottish backs.

‘He gets me, and he knows me,’ said Van der Merwe. ‘The moment he may sense that I am mentally fighting myself, he is onto me with encouragement and with a plan to get the ball to me. It is absolutely brilliant to play with the Scottish backs and having Finn at 10 is always special. As a winger, you always think you will score with him at 10. And then Blair (Kinghorn) at fullback. I have played with him at Edinburgh for years and he is unbelievable. He has got a real X factor.’

Van der Merwe, a physical giant among Test rugby’s wingers, was singled out in the tackle against Tonga in the opening half an hour. Single hits, double hits and more crashed into him, but he got up every time and when the 80 minutes was done, he had broken the attack record for a Scottish player in World Cup history. No Scottish player had ever beaten as many defenders in a single World Cup match.

His set-up for George Horn’s try was a pure power play. He got the ball in a standing start, brushed off his opposite winger, bounced No 15, swatted aside No 8, beat another cross-cover tackle, drew two more covering defenders, took them out of the game and offloaded to Horn to go over untouched. To quote the television commentary, Van der Merwe was ‘a man possessed’.

Van der Merwe’s scoreboard reward was a brace of tries, but the most telling statistic was him beating 14 defenders. According to Stats Perform, only three players have beaten more in a World Cup match, with Vilimoni Delasau (24) and Seru Rabeni (15) crushing it against the United States in 2003 and the incomparable late Jonah Lomu also beating 15 defenders against Scotland at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria, South Africa in the 1995 World Cup.

Van der Merwe and Hansen have different skill sets and while Van der Merwe’s game is built around his size and strength, Hansen’s pace, ability to find space and finishing is among the elite in international rugby.

Hansen, a former Brumbies and Australian under 20 international, was eligible for Ireland because of his Cork heritage. His mother Diana (formerly O’Shea) spent her early years in Castlemartyr, Cork, before moving to Australia as a seven year old, and there is still Hansen family related O’Sheas living in Cork.

There was always enough Irish in the home for him to identify with the Irish and the most controversial thing about arriving in Ireland is that he was not assigned to Munster, given the family roots.

Hansen has never looked back on his move. He has lived in the now and continues to do so. Even when he fronted the Wallabies in Dublin in 2022, it was an occasion he embraced and he entered with no regrets.

‘Mixed emotions, obviously,’ he told the Irish and Australian media pre the 13-10 win. ‘But no regrets. I am very happy where I am. I guess you could think what would have been with anything, so no, the decision to play for Ireland has been the best decision of my career and my life. I am loving it over here and enjoying it.’

The two wingers will provide for great entertainment, and while that match is only played on 7th October, the beauty of this season is that these two outstanding wingers will get to battle again in the BKT United Rugby Championship.

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