Veteran No 8 Duane Vermeulen has more to achieve with the World Cup-winning Springboks, writes JON CARDINELLI in the latest SA Rugby magazine.
Jacques Nienaber remembers the first time he set eyes on Vermeulen at a training session, in 2006. Rassie Erasmus was the Cheetahs head coach, while Nienaber was in charge of strength and conditioning at the union.
‘We were watching the players run through a drill,’ Nienaber tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘Rassie told me to keep an eye on this guy. He believed Duane was going to be a world-class player.
‘I looked at Duane, and to be honest I didn’t know what to think. At the age of 19, Duane was tall and skinny and had a shock of long blond hair. He didn’t strike me as anything special at that stage and I was wondering why Rassie had gone through the trouble of recruiting him from the Pumas.’
Nienaber pauses to laugh, as another early memory of Vermeulen springs to mind. ‘Duane didn’t know much about professional rugby when he arrived at the Cheetahs. I got him into the gym, and I asked him to do an Olympic lift. He had no idea what I was talking about.
‘I found out that he was a fast learner, though, with an unbelievable work ethic. I soon realised that while the kid was raw, he was extremely powerful. I began to understand why Rassie had brought Duane to the Cheetahs and why he rated him so highly.’
Erasmus’ prophecy about Vermeulen has certainly come to pass. The skinny boy that rocked up to a Currie Cup training session some 14 years ago has gone on to become one of the most physical players in Test rugby. According to Nienaber, who worked as a defence coach with Vermeulen at the Stormers and more recently at the Boks, few players have a better grasp of defensive strategy.
Last year, Vermeulen led the Boks to the Rugby Championship title in the injury-enforced absence of regular skipper Siya Kolisi. He went on to play a key role for the side in the World Cup campaign and was named Man of the Match for his robust efforts on attack and defence in the decider against England.
Several months have passed since the Boks lifted the Webb Ellis Cup on an unforgettable night in Yokohama. When SA Rugby magazine touches base with Vermeulen, he explains what it felt like to realise a life-long dream, and why he was moved to tears when forwards coach Matt Proudfoot whispered in his ear immediately after the game.
Proudfoot told Vermeulen that his father – who passed away when Vermeulen was eight years old – would have been proud of him. The past five years have been particularly challenging for Vermeulen and his own sons, with him spending a lot of time away from the family due to club commitments in France and Japan.
‘Matt told me that all the sacrifices I’ve made have been worth it,’ Vermeulen says. ‘In that moment, I felt a weight falling off my shoulders and I just let go. Maybe it’s hard for people to see a grown man cry, but I was in an emotional space and there was no point holding back.
‘You work so hard for these opportunities, and you and your loved ones make all sorts of sacrifices. For me, I’ve travelled a lot over the years and my wife and sons have had to do without me being at home. Even now, a few months after the World Cup, I’m playing in Japan and they’re in Cape Town.’
Vermeulen has made a big impact for the Kubota Spears this season. He still misses home, though, and can’t bear the thought of his sons Anru and Zian growing up without him.
‘My oldest son is in Grade 1. He ran his first race in the school sports day recently. I couldn’t wait to call home and find out how it went. I would love to have been there cheering him on from the sideline. It’s not OK for me to be away from them.
‘At the same time, we as a family are grateful for the opportunities that my rugby career has given us. I’ve travelled to many places with my family. We’ve met so many people and have experienced so many cultures. We’ve made some memories, I suppose, and that is something.’
The Boks were forced to adapt to the extreme heat and humidity during their World Cup campaign in September and October last year. More recently, the temperatures in Tokyo have plummeted and the region has experienced a fair bit of snow.
What hasn’t cooled, however, is Japan’s burning passion for the game. Vermeulen says that the country is still buzzing several months after the World Cup. The Boks who are competing in the Top League are constantly quizzed about their triumphant campaign.
‘The Japanese haven’t let us forget it,’ he says with a chuckle. ‘We’ve done so many newspaper and TV interviews over the past few months and feels like we’ve been asked the same questions over and over again. We’ve been forced to keep it fresh in our minds, and I’m sure most South Africans will agree when I say that’s not a bad thing.
‘It’s been fantastic to see Japan embracing the game over the past year or so,’ he adds. ‘The World Cup has increased the interest in the sport to a ridiculous degree. While there’s been an influx of foreign players over the past few months, local Japanese players have lifted their game a great deal. I really feel like the competition over here has become a lot stronger.’
Last month, Nienaber told SA Rugby magazine that he wants the World Cup-winning players – whether they are competing in the Super Rugby tournament or in the overseas competitions in Europe and Japan – to crack on in 2020. Reputation alone, says the new Bok coach, won’t guarantee selection.
Vermeulen played six seasons of Super Rugby before winning his first Test cap in 2012. He received a recall to the national side only in 2017 after a producing a series of titanic performances for Toulon in Europe.
Vermeulen knows what it means to fight for recognition. Even now, at the age of 33 and with more than 50 Test caps to his name, he is hoping his performances in Japan will earn him a recall for the next set of games against Scotland and Georgia in July.
‘I will be in Japan until the end of May. After that, we’ll see what happens,’ he says. ‘The 2021 British & Irish Lions series is something I would love to experience. Any player would kill to play at a World Cup. I’ve played in two. A Lions tour is also very special, though, and I would view an opportunity to face that team in a Test series as a significant moment in my life and career.
‘I played two matches against the Lions back in 2009 [for the Emerging Boks and then for Western Province]. It would be special to face the Lions in two series 12 years apart. Facing them in a Bok jersey would be a dream come true.
‘I realise that I will have to earn that chance over the next year or so,’ he adds. ‘I treasure every opportunity to contribute to the team and for what the Bok jersey stands.
‘If it’s decided that I can no longer contribute on the field, I’d love the chance to help in other ways. When you play at the highest level for more the decade and travel the world, you learn a thing or two about the game. It would be selfish to keep all that knowledge to yourself. You have to pass it on.’
MOMENT TO REMEMBER
Duane Vermeulen was named Man of the Match after the 2019 World Cup final against England. Several months later, and the veteran No 8 still believes that everybody in the group – from the coaches to the players to the non-playing reserves – deserve an equal share of credit for the 32-12 triumph.
‘Our preparation ahead of that game was first class,’ he remembers. ‘That said, we knew that our execution would have to be perfect on the day of the final, and that we would need a bit of luck.
‘England lost tighthead prop Kyle Sinckler to a serious injury early in the game and we went on to get the upper hand at the scrums. The forwards started to dominate and you could see the effect it had on the rest on the team. That happens so often in big Test matches. A dominant forward showing in the early stages can really set the tone for the rest of the contest.
‘It’s nice to say that I won the Man of the Match award in the World Cup final. I’ve got to be honest, though, that award belongs to every single member of the squad … even the guys who didn’t play in the final or the members of the management who motivated us before kickoff. I was the lucky one who got the award, but it could have gone to any one of them really.’