The Springboks will miss the leadership as well as the big-match temperament of Duane Vermeulen in the more challenging Rugby Championship clashes, writes JON CARDINELLI.
There was no reason for South African rugby supporters to celebrate on Saturday night. England beat the Boks 25-10 at Newlands to claim their first win on South African soil since 2000. The 15-point victory marked England’s biggest win in this country since the 32-15 triumph in Pretoria back in 1994.
Bok captain Siya Kolisi failed to crack a smile over the course of the post-match press conference. When I caught up with coach Rassie Erasmus afterwards, he wasn’t in the mood to accept any congratulations for a series victory.
The Boks’ performance at Newlands, as well as the margin of defeat, has taken the gloss off that particular success. What’s more, the revelation that Duane Vermeulen will miss the Rugby Championship altogether – as opposed to featuring in selected Tests – is another splash of cold water on the flames of optimism.
The Boks certainly needed that series victory after two seasons of record-breaking disappointments. Last week, South Africa was riding high on a wave of euphoria following a resounding win by a physically and tactically superior Bok side in Bloemfontein.
However, when one considers how dominant the Boks have been in South Africa in the professional era, the series victory against England should be viewed as nothing out of the ordinary. The Boks have won 19 out of 23 Tests against northern hemisphere teams in South Africa over the past 10 years.
The performances in the Rugby Championship, and away from home, have determined whether the Boks have enjoyed a successful season or not in recent times. Needless to say, this Bok side still has everything to prove in the coming Sanzaar showpiece, and on the European tour that follows.
It’s not going to get any easier for Erasmus and company from here.
Frans Steyn and Bismarck du Plessis were reportedly keen to feature in the recent series against England and ultimately bolster the Bok senior core. Sadly, an agreement could not be reached between their club, Montpellier, and SA Rugby.
On the back of that, it was confirmed that Vermeulen’s involvement in the 2018 Rugby Championship was in doubt. At best, said Erasmus, Vermeulen would feature in a few of the games – presumably those staged in South Africa.
This past Saturday, Vermeulen confirmed that he would feature in none of the games against Argentina, Australia and New Zealand. The statement was made at the same press conference in which Erasmus and Kolisi spoke about Vermeulen’s value as a leader and player.
After the first Test in Johannesburg, Kolisi revealed that it was Vermeulen who had kept the players calm when the team was seemingly dead and buried at 24-3 down. The Boks bounced back to win that game 42-39.
After the second Test, Erasmus paid tribute to Vermeulen for his contributions as a leader and player. The passage of play that saw the No 8 take on the England defence from a standing start and score a game-changing try was a statement in itself regarding Vermeulen’s determination and sense of responsibility.
Everybody in the Bok camp is putting on a brave face, but the team will miss him when he leaves for Japan in the coming weeks. Erasmus has tried to spin it by saying the absence of Vermeulen will allow other leaders to step up. He has pointed out that Warren Whiteley, Eben Etzebeth and Malcolm Marx will be back in the mix to bolster the leadership core in the Rugby Championship.
The reality is that the Boks can use all the experience and tactical nous that they can get at this point.
Erasmus’ gamble to back an experimental side at Newlands this past weekend did not pay off. If anything, it highlighted a lack of depth in the current Bok squad.
Warrick Gelant, however, was the exception. It’s clear that the Boks have two good options at fullback – a problem position at the start of the season – going forward. Elsewhere, Erasmus will be scratching his head.
Faf de Klerk isn’t the finished article at scrumhalf, but he’s a good deal more experienced and developed than the other options. On Saturday, Elton Jantjies gave critics even more reason to argue that Super Rugby is his ceiling. More worrying than Jantjies’ future, though, is who the Boks are going to take to the World Cup to play understudy to Handré Pollard.
Does South Africa have any other openside flanker options besides Kolisi? Is there another No 8 who can play the same role as Vermeulen?
Kolisi and Vermeulen proved an excellent combination in the recent series against England. They are very different leaders, yet they complement each other. They are different loose forwards, yet Vermeulen’s tendency to play to the ball does free Kolisi up to roam in the wider channels and focus on other aspects of the game.
The All Blacks are the trendsetters at the breakdown. The return of David Pocock – as seen in the epic series against Ireland – has added another dimension to the Wallabies’ game. The Boks face an almighty scrap in the coming Rugby Championship, and while the All Blacks remain the team to beat, the Wallabies have improved a great deal.
At the end of the second Test against England, one would have been inclined to say that the Boks have improved too. And after noting that Etzebeth and Marx are set to return in the Rugby Championship, one might have concluded that the Boks will be even stronger in that tournament.
The absence of their defence captain, however, may be keenly felt. Vermeulen will not be easily replaced, when one considers that Whiteley, Dan du Preez, and another No 8 option in Sikhumbuzo Notshe are very different players in terms of style and experience.
Photo: Gordon Arons/Gallo Images