Duane Vermeulen continues to impress as a player and leader, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Never back down. Never surrender. These are the words Duane Vermeulen has held close to his heart since the passing of his father some 20 years ago. It’s because of his father’s words that Vermeulen persevered for six seasons of Super Rugby before eventually winning his first Springbok cap in 2012. And it’s because of those words that he is currently one of the best players in the world.
Vermeulen feels he owes his success to his parents, his late father André in particular. He was nominated for the World Rugby Player of the Year award in late 2014, and won three major accolades at Saru’s annual prize-giving this past February. When he was called to the stage to make an acceptance speech, an emotional Vermeulen gave credit to his old man. At the end of this rousing tribute, he received a standing ovation.
Six weeks later, I caught up with Vermeulen at the Stormers’ operations base in Bellville. The Springbok No 8 said he was still on a high after receiving those awards, especially the Players’ Player accolade as it signified the respect of his peers. He said there was no risk of him resting on his laurels, and his inspirational performances during the early rounds of this year’s Super Rugby certainly lend some weight to that statement. There is still so much he wants to achieve, and he is wary of betraying his father’s legacy.
‘My dad didn’t play rugby at a high level, but he loved the game,’ Vermeulen begins, broaching the subject with a smile. ‘What I’m doing now … I think my dad would have loved this opportunity. In a way, I’m living his dream. That’s probably why I got so emotional when I won those awards.
‘Another reason is that it took me so long to fight my way into the Bok team,’ he continues. ‘But it’s not like my story is over yet. There’s still the World Cup to think about. That is where you need to prove yourself. It’s all about performing on the big stage and lifting that trophy.’
Vermeulen’s coaches at the Stormers have long spoken about his attention to detail and infectious attitude. Heyneke Meyer says he has always rated the No 8 highly, but it’s only since working with the player in 2012 with the Boks that he’s gained a true appreciation for Vermeulen’s physical talent and mental strength.
In an interview before the home leg of the Rugby Championship last year, Meyer told me Vermeulen has what it takes to be a future Springbok captain. It’s an idea that has gathered momentum after some impressive leadership displays for the Boks in Europe this past November, and for the Stormers in the early rounds of the 2015 Super Rugby tournament.
There are many people, inside and outside the Bok camp, who feel Vermeulen wouldn’t let the team down if he was asked to deputise for Jean de Villiers or Victor Matfield at the World Cup. He is, as Meyer has suggested, a man the other players will follow.
‘Respect is a word that comes to mind when you talk about Duane Vermeulen,’ says Bok assistant coach Johann van Graan. ‘He’s the perfect Bok, someone who embodies what a good Bok should be.
‘Duane has been a leader within our set-up for the past two seasons. He wanted the responsibility of leading the defence, and more responsibility at the lineout. He’s not the type to talk a great deal, but when he talks, people listen. He has the vision to see certain things on the field, and the ability to communicate that vision to his teammates.
‘The research confirms that when you get to a World Cup quarter-final, the small margins that separate the top Test teams become even smaller,’ Van Graan says when asked about Vermeulen’s importance in the context of the 2015 season. ‘You need players like Duane who can contribute in all areas of the game; players who make the right decisions at the right moments.
‘In the big Tests, Duane is the one to make the big play. Most people talk about that steal he made at the stroke of full time against New Zealand at Ellis Park last year. But this is just one big moment of many in his Bok career. That lineout call against England at Twickenham last November led to a great try for Schalk Burger. More recently, he has been making some big plays for the Stormers. As coaches, that is what we want to see.’
By early April, De Villiers was making great progress with his rehabilitation and was targeting a return in July. Vermeulen is among those who believe a fit De Villiers is the man to lead the Boks at the World Cup.
However, if the veteran centre breaks down again, and somebody like Matfield isn’t available, then Vermeulen feels he could do the captaincy position justice. His confidence is down to the strength of the Boks’ senior core.
‘I’d be delighted and honoured to get that opportunity, but there are a helluva lot of leaders and guys with experience. You would never feel alone. That’s the kind of team we have.
‘I’ve played under Jean for a few seasons; he’s the right man for the job. It was sad to see him injured in November. It’s amazing to see him walking again, let alone running around and pushing for a comeback. To see his commitment to the team, his attitude to the World Cup cause, is inspiring.’
Some cynics may point to Vermeulen’s 2014 form, as well as his displays in the early rounds of the 2015 Super Rugby tournament, and argue that the player has peaked. Vermeulen holds a very different view.
He may have usurped Kieran Read for the unofficial title of best No 8 in the world last season. He may have pushed Brodie Retallick close for the World Rugby Player of the Year accolade, and beaten all contenders to South Africa’s top prize by a country mile. But he is evidently not done. This year could be his biggest to date.
‘I’m not where I want to be, not yet,’ he says. ‘I’ve always tried to be honest with myself. I have big goals I want to achieve this season, and I have some way to go until I’m in a position to do so.’
No doubt his old man would be proud.
BOK DEFENCE COACH JOHN McFARLAND ON VERMEULEN
‘He’s the biggest hitter in world rugby. Nobody wants to run down Duane’s channel. The opposition try to avoid him. He can be an inspirational player who changes the course of games. Remember that hit on James Slipper when we played Australia in Perth last year? That’s the kind of defence that can fire up a team.
‘He’s a superb reader of the game and manages to get himself into some great positions. This also helps when it comes to turning over possession. He has a good understanding of the breakdown laws, and uses this, as well as his strength, to manipulate certain situations. He typically aims to hit the ball-carrier and move him away from the cleaning pods. The ball-carrier then becomes isolated.
‘While he’s great in one-on-one situations, he can be just as influential when organising the team to effect a big defensive play. There was a point in that game against Wales last November where they used all 15 of their players in a lineout on our tryline. Duane was massive in that play, and ultimately the team denied Wales a try. It was very pleasing to see.’
– This article first appeared in the May 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine