The Springboks’ chances of an upset victory over the All Blacks depend on the fitness of Duane Vermeulen, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Vermeulen was visibly uncomfortable during the dying stages of last week’s contest against the Wallabies. When the Boks scored three tries in the final 10 minutes, the Bok No 8 was the only player on the bench who didn’t leap from his chair or raise his hands in celebration. Vermeulen was hurting, and as an insider later confirmed, struggling to breathe.
On Monday, Bok team doctor Craig Roberts explained that the injury was to the rib cartilage and not the bone itself. It was good news in the sense that Vermeulen will not be sidelined for a lengthy period. It was, unfortunately for the Boks, news that did nothing to alleviate doubts regarding his availability for the clash against the All Blacks at Ellis Park.
On Wednesday, Heyneke Meyer bracketed Vermeulen with Schalk Burger at No 8 as Vermeulen will only train at the captain's run on Friday. It's hoped that he will make some progress over the next few days and recover in time for what is a season-defining game for the Boks. 'To lose Duane would be a massive setback,' stated Meyer.
There’s plenty of optimism in the Bok camp and indeed the greater South African rugby community following the recent performance against the Wallabies. However, there needs to be some perspective going into the match against the All Blacks.
The Boks need their best player, Vermeulen, available for this game. They also need him to be completely free of injury. It will do them no good if he is unable to contribute with those momentum-shifting tackles, or if he's unable to get low enough at the ruck to compete for the ball.
Last week, Meyer said the Boks’ loss of Willem Alberts and Francois Louw to injuries was the equivalent of the All Blacks losing Kieran Read and Richie McCaw. Alberts has been central to the Springbok game plan over the past three years, while Louw has proved that he is every bit as influential as McCaw at the breakdown.
Losing Vermeulen for this particular game would be a hammer blow. It would see the Boks going into the most important game of the season without any of their first-choice loose forwards. They will miss a first-rate fetcher in Louw, and another strong breakdown contester in Vermeulen.
On Tuesday, Read described his opposite number as ‘a brute of an African’, the inference being that Vermeulen is the bully whom the rest of the bullies fear. All Blacks loose forward Sam Cane said that Vermeulen didn’t get enough credit for his impact at the breakdown. The opposition forwards are wary of his strengths, and realise how important he is to the South African cause.
Indeed, while Vermeulen has obliged with some bone rattling hits these past few weeks – the try-saving stunner on Ben McCalman last Saturday was one for the hall of fame – he so often wins the Boks a momentum-changing turnover. If he plays this Saturday, the Boks’ chances of victory will be boosted.
The Boks will be playing at home in front of the most partisan crowd in South Africa. But make no mistake, they won’t be favourites to win.
The All Blacks’ record over the past three seasons speaks for itself. And, as we’ve witnessed over the past few years, motivation is never a problem for this side, even when they have already secured the Rugby Championship title. They will be looking to inflict further psychological damage on the Boks this Saturday.
The All Blacks will be close to full strength this weekend and the return of lineout kingpin Sam Whitelock will be significant. They won’t have Aaron Cruden in tow, but that could be a blessing in disguise. Personally, I consider Beauden Barrett a more dangerous player than Cruden at No 10, and I know that a couple of the South African coaches share my view.
The Boks need the bulk of their first-choice players fit and firing if they’re going to end the All Blacks’ unbeaten run. Unfortunately, they are currently without some important players in Louw, Alberts, scrumhalf Fourie du Preez and outside centre Jaque Fourie. They have also lost back-up players of the quality of Ruan Pienaar. Those are significant losses.
They will believe that they can beat the All Blacks this Saturday, especially after the rousing performance against the Wallabies in Cape Town. However, their chances of doing so hinge on the availability of Vermeulen, one of the most influential players in this season’s Rugby Championship.
If he cannot take the field or is limited by that rib injury, then this Bok side is unlikely to succeed where so many other South African teams have failed.
Photo: Cornel van Heerden/Gallo Images