The Scottish Eight and the Lions’ Test 23: van der Merwe and Hogg

Wing

Last Test series’ minutes on the wing for a Scot – Alan Tait in 1997

Duhan van der Merwe’s unique selling point is his ability to power through tackles. The winger is an incredibly difficult man to stop, which he has parlayed into an outstanding try-scoring strike rate for both Edinburgh and Scotland.

When Scotland have used van der Merwe to truck it up in the middle of the pitch he has been excellent at getting over the gain line. In order to win a place in the Lions’ Test squad though he will need to show that he can bring that power to bear more regularly into the heart of the action.

Duhan might need to accept that the trio along the lines of Stuart Hogg, Liam Williams and Anthony Watson look more likely to be the favoured for the back 3 starting roles, bringing all-round strengths and a good balance to the full back and wing positions.

Under normal circumstances an out-and-out winger would be a luxury for a bench spot. However, if all of the starting back 3 can all cover full back and Owen Farrell is in the 23 to slot in at stand off or centre then the Lions’ coaches might be able to afford to have a game breaker among the replacements.

If that is the case then van der Merwe’s main aim has to be to win his head to head battle with Louis Rees-Zammit to provide a bit more explosive dynamism (with a focus on power in DVDM’s case against pace for LRZ) that could prove the difference in unlocking the Springboks’ defence.

It’s crucial Duhan takes every opportunity to showcase his outstanding ability to break tackles and push himself ahead of steadier options for the number 23 shirt like Josh Adams and Elliot Daly who can provide more solid defence and a kicking game to boost their credentials (van der Merwe averages a kick every 164 minutes for Scotland and has only booted the ball once in his last 19 PRO14 / Rainbow Cup games for Edinburgh).

What are the chances? In a tough battle for a bench spot. Even tries on tour might not be enough for the big man – he has to show a hunger to work off his wing and win the Lions front foot ball on a regular basis.

Full Back

Last Test series’ minutes at full back for a Scot – Gavin Hastings in 1993

Stuart Hogg is seemingly in pole position for the number 15 jersey after his strongest season for Scotland for a number of years. A backfield trio of Hogg, Liam Williams and Anthony Watson would have definite vibes of the Hogg / Sean Maitland / Tommy Seymour grouping that was so successful for the dark blues over a number of years.

The Exeter full back’s highlight reel is filled with examples of his hot-stepping and coruscating pace but it may well be other areas of his game that are most crucial for the Lions. In a series that is likely to be tightly contested and with neither defence likely to give an inch, Hogg’s distribution and kicking could seal his place in the starting line-up.

Over the last four years for Scotland he has opted to kick 24% of the time (the most of any Scottish player), pass 32% and run 43%. His spiral punting would make a real weapon in the Lions’ armoury when it comes to winning the field position battle.

He averages 7.5 passes per 80 minutes from full back – well ahead of the average for Scotland’s other outside backs – as he frequently steps in as a playmaker to vary the picture in the attacking system.

Playing Williams and Watson who are equally adept at full back or on the wing would free up Hoggy to provide options as a first or alternate receiver and get the high involvement rate he does with Scotland.

The Hawick man’s growth into the captaincy role should also stand in his favour with a strong group of leaders likely to be needed in what will be an extremely challenging Test series.

What are the chances? The most likely Scot to start.

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When he's not watching Glasgow, Scotland (and even Edinburgh) Kevin can usually be found with his head in a spreadsheet working out the most obscure Scottish rugby related stat he can put out on Twitter.
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10 comments on “The Scottish Eight and the Lions’ Test 23: van der Merwe and Hogg

  1. FF on

    Unless injuries intervene, I think Hogg, Russell and Price are all going to get a test cap over the series.

  2. The Chiel on

    Going forward ball in hand he’s just great, but I don’t think you can discuss DVDM properly without referencing his defence, and complete lack of a kicking game. Or if he’s got one, why has he kept it hidden ? I’d obviously be delighted to see him in the mix for a test cap, but if I’m honest I wouldn’t even have taken him on tour.

    Baxter has thrown a spanner in Hogg’s works this weekend, which is of course being jumped on by some of the English media. Didn’t help that Nowell played so well. Hopefully it’s a wake up call and Nowell will be shifted to the wing on Saturday.

    • Scotty on

      Gatland has shown he doesn’t take other coaches opinions into consideration (Eg Jones not picking Simmonds). If Hogg shows up well in training for the Lions, Gatland will pick him.

      I have a theory about VDM that could see him in the test side. You need crash ball centres against SA particularly when the number 8s he’s picked will be out in the wide channels – the centres essentially become another forward in the pods. If Farrell plays 12, I think VDM could play on the wing to perform the crash ball duties that Farrell cannot. If, however, the centres are Harris/henshaw/aki, then no VDM.

      • FF on

        Gatland clearly rates Hogg as he’s been selected on all three tours he was available for, first as a callow 19 year old, then as the presumptive starting 15 until Connor Murray took him out with friendly fire.

        Hogg is a likely starter and offers so much in terms of his kicking game, counter-attacking game, entering the line as a playmaker and generally as a superb leader. I don’t think Gatland will care a jot what Baxter’s motivation behind dropping him was – Hogg is in the Lions squad and starts in pole position.

        RE: DVDM, his positioning certainly need work and he isn’t the best under the high ball. But in 400min in the 6N he missed 3 tackles, compared to LRZ missing 9! Why isn’t LRZ’s defence being questioned to the same extent???

        For comparison:
        Watson missed 7 tackles in 395min
        Adams 6 in 240mins (!)
        Daly 4 in 332 mins
        Liam Williams 4 in 313 mins.

        I think DVDM defensive frailty is exaggerated – from memory he made one high profile mistake against France, but if defensive solidity is required you’d have to say LRZ, Watson and Adams would have question marks over them based on the 6N.

      • Warmer on

        FF: Lets see what Baxter does next week ! Nowell will play in the final and Hogg will make it on the tour. Quins cannot improve on their amazing semi and a less than perfect Exeter is better than most. It will not be a problem for Exeter or Hogg. Win / win.

        PS : Did Toonie not do something similar at Glasgow !

      • Alanyst on

        Duhan makes his tackles when he’s there to make them.

        However, he is indeed often out of position, too deep or getting sucked in to the 13 channel, leading to an overlap and scramble defence.

        I guess this often doesn’t count as his missed tackle, as Hogg or Price or someone is screaming across to make a cover tackle…

    • JohnMc on

      Yep, I read Stuart Barnes’s Times article today and the author was clearly using Exeter’s selection decision to have yet another dig at Hogg’s case for a Lions starting place.
      I really rate Watson and think he will figure deservedly somewhere in the back three.
      Less sure about Williams as I don’t think he’s the player he was four or five years ago.

      • Alanyst on

        Typical rubbish.

        Nowell is a top notch player, as is Hogg, but they are of course different and Exeter are incredibly lucky to be able to make these choices as their game plans and circumstances dictate. Some days it a Ferrari day, others a Porsche.

        It says nothing about quality, as Baxter has said, but why should journalists listen to coaches, when they know better!

      • Fraser on

        I would suspect Hogg has had half an eye on the lions and was maybe a bit unfocused and thinking about avoiding injuries.
        If so then dropping him was the right call – hopefully he will be back for the final with a bit more motivation.

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