The 31-year-old has scored 25 tries in his 44 international caps and joined the Falcons from Pro 12 winners the Scarlets, having scored a try in the competition’s final. Made co-captain of his country over the summer, Van der Merwe’s debut had been delayed by a knee injury suffered during their Rugby World Cup qualifying match against the USA.
His inclusion is one of five changes from the team which started in last weekend’s match against Saracens in Philadelphia, with hooker Santiago Socino making his first Aviva Premiership start after a pair of appearances from the bench over the past fortnight. Older brother Juan Pablo Socino comes into the centres, Craig Willis earning a first start of the season at fly-half while Will Witty slots into the second row.
Heading to the Rec in pursuit of their third consecutive away win in the league, director of rugby Dean Richards is relishing the opportunity to return to a venue at which he had many a skirmish in his playing days.
“I used to love the Rec, it was one of my favourite places to play and I had many a punch-up down there,” joked the Falcons boss.
“The pitch never used to be as good as it is now and I used to love thriving in the mud, but it’s a different type of game nowadays. Back then Bath used to have 10 or 12 of the England team knocking around their squad, and Leicester were vying with them for that top spot. Every game with them was a real battle, but I enjoyed it.
“They’re a really good side these days but they have a couple of injuries in key areas, as we do ourselves. On paper they’re putting out a strong team and it should be a really good contest. We work very hard on our shape, and if we stick to that shape we have runners and strike players who can cause them problems. Likewise them for us, and they have a number of key individuals who can make a big difference.”
Determined not to use last weekend’s match in Philadelphia as an excuse this weekend, Richards said: “Everybody has come back really well from America and there are no worries with fatigue or jet lag. We got back into training on Tuesday, we had a big day on Wednesday and everything is now geared up to arriving fresh and fully prepared at Bath on Saturday.
“The week over there was great although the result was disappointing, but in terms of going to America and what we got out of it as a team I thought that was pretty good. It has promoted the Aviva Premiership to a new audience, continued to spread awareness of professional rugby in America and created a lot of interest. There were a few glitches on the way but on the whole I thought the whole thing was a reasonable success
“The team bonding element of it was important, we had full access to the players for an entire week and you don’t ordinarily get that during the season. That was all part of it, and while the game itself didn’t deliver the result we wanted we took a lot of positives.
“Saracens had virtually their full-strength side out, barring possibly George Kruis in the second row, and when you take into account the number of Lions and international stars at their disposal it was always going to be a tall order. Having said that, I thought out boys acquitted themselves really well, and we’ve still got a number of injuries we are waiting on.
“The guys who started the game did well on the whole and I don’t think we were helped by the referee. We have to accept we’re not quite there yet with the referees in terms of getting the favours that perhaps the top sides get, because they look at the so-called smaller sides in a slightly different way. That said and done, I thought the boys acquitted themselves pretty well. It’s a case of knowing what we need to do to get right up with the elite teams, and we’ve got a realistic bunch of boys who work incredibly hard.”
Determined to avoid a repeat of last season’s defeat at the Rec, Richards added: “It was a game spoiled by a yellow card which should never have been awarded to Niki Goneva, and they scored four tries when he was off the field. That killed the game, really, and I’m hopeful the referee on Saturday won’t make a similar mistake.”
Newcastle Falcons (v Bath Rugby, Saturday, 3pm, the Recreation Ground)
15 Simon Hammersley
14 Vereniki Goneva
13 Chris Harris
12 Juan Pablo Socino
11 DTH van der Merwe
10 Craig Willis
9 Sonatane Takulua
1 Rob Vickers
2 Santiago Socino
3 Jon Welsh
4 Calum Green
5 Will Witty
6 Mark Wilson
7 Will Welch (captain)
8 Nili Latu
16 Scott Lawson
17 Sami Mavinga
18 Trevor Davison
19 Sean Robinson
20 Ally Hogg
21 Sam Stuart
22 Joel Hodgson
23 Josh Matavesi
Referee: Craig Maxwell-Keys