Should Saturday be Duane Vermeulen’s last club outing in South Africa, how fitting that it would be in Cape Town and in front of the biggest crowd to ever watch a rugby match at Cape Town Stadium. It would be the perfect salute to one of South Africa and Cape Town’s favourite rugby sons.
The DHL Stormers Vodacom United Rugby Championship semi-final against Vermeulen’s Ulster has the rugby people of Cape Town buzzing in anticipation.
Covid regulations in South Africa continue to restrict attendance to 50% and with every ticket available snapped up this week, the expected number tops the 30 000 mark.
You have to go back five years for a home match featuring the Stormers to beat that figure, which is confirmation of the strides John Dobson’s young squad have made in 2022. It also shows just how big the appetite is for a successful team in the URC.
Vermeulen is contracted to Ulster to 2023, but it is debatable how many matches he will play for the club in 2023, given his Springboks commitments till the end of 2022 and also factoring in the national team’s 2023 World Cup preparation and international schedule.
Vermeulen remains among the most popular players in South Africa, regardless of which jersey he wears, even when he is playing for a foreign club.
Earlier in the season Vermeulen played against the Stormers in Cape Town and the Vodacom Bulls at Loftus. He had led both South African teams in his career and prior to arriving back in South Africa he was quoted as saying that he expected a fiery reception from the crowd.
But the only bit of fire came from the opposition, in every tackle or play of the game. It was all legal and all respectful and in both matches Vermeulen was given a standing ovation when leaving the field before the final whistle.
Vermeulen, be it in an Ulster, Stormers or Bulls jersey, commands presence on a rugby field, inspires loyalty from the South African crowd and also demands, by way of performance. respect from his opponents.
The 22 year-old Stormers No 8 Evan Roos raves about Vermeulen being his idol when growing up. There are some wonderful social media photos of a 12 year-old Roos meeting his 20-something Springbok idol.
Now they have played against each other in the past 18 months, in the Currie Cup when Vermeulen was at the Bulls and in the URC this season.
Vermeulen is also the mentor to Bulls loose forward Elrigh Louw and after Ulster’s defeat in Pretoria earlier in the year, Louw posted a powerful photo of the two bonded in an embrace, with a caption that spoke only of respect and reverence for Vermeulen.
The crowd at the Stadium on Saturday will be biased and they will lift each time Vermeulen gets knocked back in the tackle, but equally they will applaud Vermeulen’s influential moments.
There is only love for Vermeulen down south and the player will also get to experience just how much love, should he line up for the Springboks against Wales at the very same Cape Town Stadium in Cape Town in July.
For now, on Saturday, Vermeulen is the opposition, but unlike his Ulster teammates, he won’t ever be seen as the enemy. Not in South Africa. Not now and not ever.
It is a testament to how Vermeulen has always played the game and how he has always embraced the jersey he wears, be it the Pumas, the Cheetahs, Western Province, Stormers, France’s Toulon, Kubota Spears in Japan, the Vodacom Bulls or Belfast’s Ulster.
The Bulls CEO Edgar Rathbone, on Vermeulen’s departure from the Bulls to Ulster in 2022 tweeted: ‘Congratulations @UlsterRugby on signing an absolute beast! Duane is a class rugby player on the field and an even better ambassador away from it. Thanks for all the hard yards at @BlueBluessRugby Duane, you will be missed!’
Vermeulen is that sort of player. When he arrives in a new place, it is with fanfare and when he leaves it is with fanfare.
He is one of those hardened veterans that throughout his career has delivered on the hype, but he is still from the old school that transforms from grizzly giant to gentleman the moment the final whistle blows.
Will the Cape side make two in a row against Ulster?
— SA Rugby magazine (@SARugbymag) June 9, 2022
Photo: ©INPHO/Laszlo Geczo