South African rugby needs more players like Duane Vermeulen who are willing to speak out against the evil and indifference that is killing the game in this country, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Everyone was embarrassed in the wake of the 57-15 result at Kings Park last Saturday. Springbok coach Allister Coetzee and captain Adriaan Strauss were embarrassed following a South African performance that saw as many as 57 points and nine tries conceded. The result marked the Boks' worst-ever defeat on South African soil.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen and skipper Kieran Read appeared to be embarrassed for the Boks. Hansen went out of his way to highlight the difference between the New Zealand structures and those in South Africa. Read attempted to dodge the question suggesting that the Boks had lost their aura, even though the class of 2016 had conceded nearly 100 points and 15 tries to the All Blacks in two Tests.
The criticism that has folllowed from the South African public and global media, however, has been more honest and scathing. Commentators such as former Bok coach Nick Mallett have taken aim at the South African structures and systems. Owen Slot, respected writer of the Times of London, was hardly exaggerating when he said that the once mighty Boks are in danger of becoming the West Indies of world rugby.
The recent results at Super Rugby and national level serve as a damning indictment. South African rugby is in crisis.
It's easy for the media to point this out. It's easy to attack a South African administration that is still serving the interests of the 14 unions rather than those of the national side.
It's far harder for a player, who is still available for the Boks and has been spoken about as a future captain, to come forward and speak the brutal and honest truth.
Duane Vermeulen had a lot to lose by criticising the South African system in the public space. But after watching the Boks concede nine tries (something that hurt him on a personal level given his role as the team's defensive organiser in years gone past) and after watching the Boks capitulate in the last 20 minutes at Kings Park, Vermeulen decided that somebody needed to take action.
And if not Vermeulen, then who? There have been some big questions asked of the Boks' senior group in 2016. Strauss has delivered the standard line about disappointment and embarrassment following every big loss this year. On the day before the Test at Kings Park, Strauss said that he might have more to say once his tenure came to an end later in the season.
In the wake of Vermeulen's attack on the system and leadership, one has to ask why Strauss is holding back. The Bok hooker has already confirmed that he will be retiring from Test rugby at the end of 2016. Why wait until then to make a stand? Why not support Vermeulen in a cause that should ultimately benefit South African rugby?
In early 2014, Bok coach Heyneke Meyer told me that Vermeulen had all the makings of a future Bok captain. When Jean de Villiers retired at the end of 2015, Vermeulen was the standout candidate for the job in 2016 and beyond.
Yet, in the lead-up to the three-Test series against Ireland, Coetzee made it clear that SA Rugby would stay true to its policy of selecting a captain based in South Africa. The France-based Vermeulen, who skippers a Toulon side stacked with international stars, was overlooked.
One doubts that Vermeulen's recent comments have endeared him to the SA Rugby leadership. One doubts that SA Rugby will be more inclined to consider him for the captaincy when Strauss steps down at the end of the year.
This is, after all, the same SA Rugby that got rid of then coach Nick Mallett in 2000 for complaining about ticket prices. This is the same organisation that failed to retain Jake White after he had led the Boks to the 2007 World Cup title.
Nevetheless, one has to admire Vermeulen, not only for taking the risk, but for saying what needs to be said. Many columnists and commentators have been banging on about the backward South African rugby system for years. The complaint of a senior Bok player who has the respect of other South African players, however, is going to be harder to ignore.
SA Rugby needs strong leadership during this time of crisis. The Boks will also need strong leaders going forward, as well as a captain like Vermeulen who is not afraid to call a spade a spade. Honesty will be needed for South African rugby to address its many issues, and for the national side to progress.
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