Neither the Springboks nor the Stormers can afford to lose Duane Vermeulen to injury for an extended period, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Last year, Heyneke Meyer told SA Rugby magazine that he was worried about Vermeulen. One of the Bok coach’s greatest fears is that his irreplaceable No 8 will go down with a serious injury and miss the 2015 World Cup.
Meyer, and indeed the greater South African rugby community, will be holding their breath over the next few days when Vermeulen visits a neurosurgeon to have a neck injury assessed. The injury has already precluded him from one match, and is likely to preclude him from the Stormers’ next game against the Sharks in Durban.
Meyer will be hoping the freakish injury doesn’t sideline the influential loose forward for the remainder of the Vodacom Super Rugby tournament, or worse, for the all-important World Cup later this year. The Stormers need Vermeulen if they are to stand any chance of winning this year’s title. The Boks boast more stars across their lineup, but Vermeulen plays a key role in their game plan. The national side will be a less potent prospect at that World Cup if Vermeulen is not there.
On Saturday evening, Stormers coach Allister Coetzee and the team doctor told the media not to speculate about Vermeulen’s condition. They encouraged reporters, and indirectly the fans, to hope for the best. They discouraged all talk of the worst-case scenario.
Privately, Coetzee must be a concerned man. A Stormers side sans Vermeulen did just enough to hang on for a 19-19 draw on Saturday and claim the South African conference title. But make no mistake, Vermeulen has been at the heart of the Stormers’ effort over the course of the season.
His strong leadership, abrasive attitude at the gainline, and impeccable timing at the breakdown have contributed to some big wins. If the Stormers are to go further in this tournament and win their first title, they will need a player of Vermeulen’s class and experience leading the charge.
South African rugby supporters should hope there's nothing profoundly wrong with Vermeulen’s neck. They should hope he doesn’t require corrective surgery and that he isn’t forced to sit out of the coming play-offs.
One would also hope Meyer’s worst fears are not realised. It’s important Vermeulen forms part of the Bok squad travelling to England this September.
Another reason the Boks need Vermeulen to be fit for the World Cup is that there are so few real alternatives at No 8. Many critics love to talk about the depth in South African rugby, particularly in the loose forward department. Unfortunately, the Boks don’t have many No 8 options who tick the boxes of form, experience, and a significant amount of time spent in the current national set-up.
During Meyer’s tenure with the Boks, Vermeulen has started at No 8 in 29 out of possible 37 Tests. Three other players have started at No 8 between 2012 and 2014, namely Pierre Spies (in six Tests), Willem Alberts (one), and Keegan Daniel (one). Spies has battled with injuries over the past three years and failed to regain any significant form. Daniel is no longer on the Bok radar, and these days Alberts is considered a specialist No 7.
Schalk Burger has already played 75 Tests, and is enjoying a terrific run of form. While many coaches have entertained the idea of playing Burger at No 8 over the past 12 years, few have actually done it, at Super Rugby or at international level. Burger filled in at No 8 against Australia at Newlands last year after Vermeulen left the field with a rib injury. Perhaps this option could be explored further in the coming months.
Nizaam Carr and Warren Whiteley linked up with the Boks last year, and earned two caps apiece. Both are known for their prowess as No 8s at Super Rugby level, but both featured at flank for the Boks in 2014.
It may be Meyer is forced to take a chance on an untried or under-utilised option, much like Kitch Christie did with Mark Andrews in 1995, and as Jake White did with Danie Rossouw in 2007. Meyer will have a number of quality loose forwards at his disposal, but he may have to take a gamble on an option that's not enjoyed much game time in that No 8 position over the past three years.
Vermeulen may yet be cleared of serious injury over the next few days. But this incident has highlighted the vulnerability of the Boks in that crucial position.
The Stormers will struggle if Vermeulen doesn’t return in the play-offs. For the Boks, perhaps it’s best Meyer explores one or two alternatives in the five internationals leading up to the World Cup tournament.
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