The Bok coaches need to prioritise finding someone to fill Duane Vermeulen’s huge boots, writes SIMNIKIWE XABANISA in the latest SA Rugby magazine.
The lessons during the British & Irish Lions tour were as plentiful as they were frequent, but few were as important as the urgent need to find someone worthy of Thor’s hammer.
From the very first big hit to his Man of the Match performance in his last game in the green and gold jersey, which was coincidentally the 2019 World Cup final, Duane Vermeulen – the man sometimes known as Thor – has always had the happy knack of setting the tone for the Springboks.
A bison in the carry and the definition of superior discontent in defence; an often unseen but critical hand in the lineout and a colossus under the high ball; and a thieving bastard at the breakdown, Vermeulen has had his fingerprints all over the Boks’ relentless gameplan amid all this talk about its DNA.
A sign of the excessive faith the Springbok coaching team have in Vermeulen is how they didn’t bat an eyelid in retaining him in their British & Irish Lions squad despite him suffering a knee injury that would need surgery and seven weeks to recover the day the team was announced.
But during that recovery period – a time during which the No 8 couldn’t help the Boks against the Lions because his injury didn’t allow him to – Vermeulen turned 35, meaning the time has come to find a long-term replacement.
The prudent thing to ask before looking at the men auditioning is whether Jacques Nienaber is looking for a like-for-like replacement, when Vermeulen’s influence within the Bok squad seemed to go well beyond a typical No 8’s role.
Next up would maybe be a ranking of where said candidates stand: like those being seriously looked at and those whose claims may have lost ground.
The Bok coaches were forced into starting the search with the significantly smaller Kwagga Smith, mostly out of loyalty to how long he’d been part of the set-up. But the 13cm and 22kg Smith was missing in size to the 1.93m, 117kg, Vermeulen proved to be about the same size as Thor’s hammer, meaning he was well short of the tools needed to replicate the level of influence.
Jasper Wiese, who earned his golden ticket by outplaying Vermeulen one Super Rugby Unlocked Friday night in Bloemfontein before departing for Leicester – where his calling card has been punishing carries and equally punishing defence, with the odd disciplinary card thrown in – seems to be the second cab out of the taxi rank.
The wrecking ball from Upington needs to be given time to find his playing voice, as it were, but the fact his Bok career has begun at 25 means not only does he have a fair understanding of his game, it is also a similar age to Vermeulen when he began his international career (26).
Evan Roos, a robustly built sort (1.91m, 109kg) with an indefatigable work rate and runs into collisions with the delicacy of an enraged rhino, is a 21-year-old in a hurry, looking at his recent performances for Western Province.
But regardless of the scores of admirers he seems to be collecting with each outing, he needs to pay his school fees, as the old coaches say, and against teams of a sterner level than the current Currie Cup.
Dan du Preez and Juarno Augustus – two bruisers with nothing but bad intentions when ripping into contact – both appear to have lost ground, the former despite being the nearest thing to a like for like replacement for Vermeulen, physically, and the latter despite a decorated junior international record.
Apart from the physical similarities, Du Preez doesn’t share Vermeulen’s underrated soft skills and rugby intellect, while hope springs eternal that Augustus’ move to Northampton will iron out him playing in patches and disappearing in games.
Sikhumbuzo Notshe and Hacjivah Dayimani are incredible players, but they don’t seem to fit the Bok dynamic, physically. May the best man win.