Vodacom Bulls captain and Springbok stalwart Duane Vermeulen still has plenty more to give, writes JON CARDINELLI in the latest SA Rugby magazine.
Vermeulen laughs when he’s reminded about plans that were put in place immediately after the Springboks’ World Cup victory in Japan.
The South African franchises were meant to kick on and challenge for the Super Rugby trophy. The Boks, with new coach Jacques Nienaber and director of rugby Rassie Erasmus calling the shots, were meant to use the Tests against Scotland and Georgia – scheduled for June – to blood new players and try new combinations with a view to the future.
The Boks were meant to ride the momentum of three Test wins into the Rugby Championship and the subsequent tour to the northern hemisphere. By early 2021, Nienaber and Erasmus expected to have a host of experienced options across all positions at their disposal. They felt that they would be more than well prepared to battle the British & Irish Lions and add to their legacy.
The Covid-19 crisis has laid waste to all of these grand plans. And while the world looks set to return to something resembling normality in the coming months, the fact remains that the South Africans – who have returned to competitive rugby several months after their Australasia and European counterparts – have a lot of catching up to do.
‘We were ideally placed to build something special after that World Cup,’ says Vermeulen. ‘It’s nearly a year later and we’ve played no Tests. We’ve had a seven-month period of inactivity in South Africa. It does feel like we’ve lost all that momentum.’
Vermeulen, like so many of those who comprised that World Cup squad, knows what it’s like to fight against the odds. The Boks rebounded after the disappointments of 2016 and 2017 to regain respect in 2018 by beating the All Blacks in Wellington. They went on to win the Rugby Championship and World Cup a year later, and to claim World Rugby’s No 1 ranking.
The Boks beat the odds once. Perhaps they can do so again.
‘We will have to start again,’ he says. ‘We’ll have to be patient, as it will take time for us to get back to our best.
‘What South African rugby has in its favour is its depth and can-do attitude. We’re blessed with a lot of youngsters, and it was great to see so many players putting up their hands prior to the lockdown in March.
‘I’m sure we’ll see more players giving the coaches food for thought in this newlook domestic competition [which will be played from October to January]. Ultimately, coach Jacques Nienaber and Rassie Erasmus will be in a strong position to pick a good squad for that Lions series down the line.’
In many ways, Vermeulen is back to where he started at the beginning of the 2019 season. As was the case last year, he’s joined the Bulls after a campaign with the Kubota Spears in Japan. He’s living in a hotel within walking distance of Loftus Versfeld – the same hotel he called home for much of 2019 – while his wife and two sons are in Cape Town.
This time around, however, his stint with the Bulls will be different for several reasons. The franchise has a new director of rugby in Jake White – the mastermind who coached the Boks to World Cup glory in 2007.
‘I’ve never worked with Jake before. In the past, I heard stories about his methods and the way he likes to do things. I get on with him really well and we have a good understanding.
‘I’m enjoying the opportunity to learn from a guy who’s won the World Cup and then gone on to succeed in Australia, France and Japan. Maybe people look at me and see a senior player. The truth is I’m even more determined than ever to learn. You can’t stop growing and learning. You have to be open to new ideas, and that’s why I’m excited to be working with a guy like Jake.’
A host of experienced players have left Pretoria, though, and Vermeulen – who has been handed the Bulls captaincy once again – won’t have as many senior men to lean on.
The straight-talking No 8 remains optimistic about his team’s chances. The philosophy that powered the Boks – one that encouraged the development of leaders across the team – will hold sway at the Bulls.
‘Every player should think of himself as a leader,’ he says. ‘At the 2015 World Cup, I was in charge of the South African defence. I led the Boks in the 2019 Rugby Championship, and played a different leadership role at the World Cup. Ultimately, it boils down to taking responsibility, whether you have the captain’s armband or not.
‘There are always going to be other leaders in the team who are responsible for certain departments. I believe in giving everyone a chance to speak up and develop as a leader. You need to give the junior guys responsibility too. That sharpens their focus and builds their confidence. Once you have different players embracing responsibility in some way or another, you have a strong team.’
Vermeulen admits that the domestic competition will be like no other before it.
‘It requires a different mindset. We’re starting in October and finishing in January, which is unprecedented. You’ve got to adapt your game if you’re going to succeed in matches played in extreme heat over the South African summer.
‘We’ve also got to be prepared for the possibility of playing in Rugby Championship [scheduled for the November and December in Australia] and then going into a new season thereafter. These are strange times, yet they are exciting times.
‘When last did we see all the Boks heavily involved in a domestic tournament like the Currie Cup? In recent years, the top players have been abroad or competing in the Rugby Championship when the Currie Cup has been staged. Now we’re going to see a real strength-versus-strength domestic competition.
‘Every player and coach will be determined to prove a point after the long break. Everyone will be fighting for a place in the Bok squad. That’s what’s going to make the tournament particularly intense. Expect a lot of passion from all corners.’
Vermeulen was fortunate to get one of the last flights out of Japan prior to the lockdown in late March. Bok team-mates such as Malcolm Marx and Damian de Allende weren’t so lucky and managed to leave only a month later.
While the lockdown afforded him an extended period at home with his family, he’s missed the unique opportunities that rugby presents.
‘I’m not used to sitting still. This lockdown has been a big challenge for me these past six months,’ he says with a laugh.
‘When you play a game of collisions for a living, and then you don’t play that game at all for a half a year, it does feel like something is missing from your life. I’m looking forward to going out there and getting back into the swing of things, in a manner I know and love.
‘A lot of players have said that the break has taught us not to take anything for granted. You’ve got to cherish every minute on the field. I’m sure that we’ll see plenty of players bringing that attitude to the contest in the coming months.’
Vermeulen will be 35 by the time the Boks battle the Lions in the first of three Tests next July. After spending two seasons in the less demanding Japanese competition, and on the back of the Covid-19 enforced break from the game, he may well have several years of top-flight rugby left in the tank.
‘I feel like I was in good shape prior to the break. Sometimes these extended layoffs do give you a new lease on life.
‘We’ll see. I want to play competitive rugby for as long as possible. If my form and my body hold up, why shouldn’t I play for the next five years? On the other hand, if you’re not performing you’ve got to know when to step down and make way for the youngsters. I’m not there yet, though. I have plenty more to give.’
There’s been a lot of talk about Frans Steyn facing the Lions for the second time his career. Steyn starred for the Boks in the series victory back in 2009. Fitness permitting, Steyn should play a key role for South Africa in 2021.
Few may remember that Vermeulen also faced the Lions back in 2009. He too could get a second crack at the composite side from the home nations.
‘You never know what life is going to throw at you,’ Vermeulen says. ‘When I played against the Lions in 2009, I never dreamed that I would get the chance to do so again.
‘It’s just around the corner now, and I’ve got to do all I can to play myself into the Bok squad. I may have played against the Lions – for Western Province and the Emerging Boks – in 2009, but I didn’t face them in a Test. I didn’t face them as a bona fide Bok.
‘That’s a big difference, and something that’s driving me forward. I would be lucky to get there, in the sense that very few actually play in a Test series against the Lions. I know that I can’t stop working for the chance to be part of something special.’
VERMEULEN’S CLUB JOURNEY
2016-2018: Toulon, France
2018: Kubota Spears, Japan
2020: Kubota Spears, Japan
COMPETITION FOR POSITIONS
‘Competition brings the best out of players,’ says Springbok veteran Duane Vermeulen when he’s asked about South Africa’s abundance of No 8 options.
‘I’ve enjoyed watching guys like Dan du Preez performing for Sale Sharks in the Premiership. Sikhumbuzo Notshe was in fantastic form for the Sharks in Super Rugby prior to the lockdown. When you see younger guys like that performing, it’s another reminder that you can’t take anything for granted.
‘I’ve always believed that nobody owns a Springbok jersey. You have to fight for the chance to wear that No 8 in every single game. If you get the chance, it’s because you’re the best man for the job, not because you have a reputation or anything like that.
‘If you look at my career, I don’t think there’s been a time when I was guaranteed the chance to start,’ he adds. ‘I’ve always had to prove myself, and that is fine by me. In that respect, nothing will change in the coming season.’
*This feature first appeared in the latest SA Rugby magazine, now on sale!