Jacques Vermeulen’s versatility has benefited the Sharks in this year’s Currie Cup, writes MIKE GREENAWAY.
Jacques Vermeulen is surely among the leading contenders for the Currie Cup Player of the Year award, such has been his hefty impact on the competition, and his rare versatility means he is a coach’s dream in a world where we never stop hearing about the ‘squad system’.
There are some who would argue that his ability to play anywhere in the pack other than front row means he could end up as a jack of all trades and master of none – there are more than enough high-profile cases of players not reaching their potential because they never settled in one position.
The nice ‘problem’ with Vermeulen is that he is so good he can play No 6, 7, 8 and 4 (he is a towering 1.97m), and like any hungry young player, he gives a diplomatic answer when asked about his adaptability.
‘I’ll play wherever the coach wants me, although if I’m totally honest, lock would be fourth choice,’ he says with an eloquence that seems at odds with the mobile railway sleeper we have seen crashing about the Currie Cup.
Vermeulen looks like a rugby player should, plays like an old-school warrior, is already littered with scars at the age of 22, but confidently speaks English as if it was his first language.
In fact, his rugged play is not dissimilar to that of Gert Smal, the former Springbok and Western Province flank and current WP director of rugby who Vermeulen says played a big role in his development when he left school and played in the WP junior ranks.
Vermeulen has been on the rugby radar since school at Paarl Gym Primary and certainly at Paarl Gym. His CV could not read better: Paarl Gym, SA Schools (2013) and SA U20 (2014, 2015).
It leaves you scratching your head why Smal let him go after he finished a three-year contract at Newlands in 2016. Vermeulen provides the answer.
‘It was a very difficult decision to make. I grew up a huge Province supporter. But I’m a young player and at Western Province there are a lot of good players in my position, and I felt I was going to be in the queue for a while. I also believed that a change in scenery would make me even hungrier and Durban seemed an ideal place to move to.’
Vermeulen is too polite to mention that last year he also had Sharks coach Robert du Preez banging loudly on his door.
‘I have always wanted Jacques to play for me,’ says Du Preez with the smile of the cat that got the cream. ‘I have known him for a long time, from when he was still playing for Paarl Gym. He came through the national age-group ranks with my sons Jean-Luc and Daniel [who were at Kearsney College in KwaZulu-Natal], right up to SA U20, so we have known each other for a while. I just knew he was the real deal.’
The decision to leave the Cape would have been that much easier for Vermeulen knowing the Sharks coach rated him very highly.
He says he never imagined leaving the Cape during a childhood in Paarl he describes as ‘as normal as can be’.
‘We are a typical South African family living in a peaceful town. Rugby has not been a big part of our family history. I have an older brother who was a good schoolboy rugby player but he chose the corporate world after school. Maybe the standout thing about us is we have a lot of dogs!’ he says with a laugh.
‘I was one of those kids who could not sit still and I spent half my life walking our dogs – greyhounds and Jack Russells. Otherwise it was fishing or golf.’
He was also a very good cricketer.
‘In Grade 11, I had to choose between the sports. I was an all-rounder, coming in at No 6 and hitting the ball a long way, and a fast bowler. I decided I could make a career out of rugby and stopped cricket.’
Vermeulen finds Durban more laid-back than Cape Town and reckons the outdoor lifestyle is perfect for him.
‘If you want a good laugh, you should watch my housemate [Sharks hooker] Franco Marais trying to teach me to surf … he hasn’t been at the coast that long himself!’
The blind leading the blind, one imagines.
But back to the big question of where Vermeulen’s robust talents should best be utilised. It would be a pity to limit his talents to lock, a position where South Africa isn’t short of talent, and his appetite for destruction would also be a little wasted at No 8. Ideally he should be at No 6 or 7, the positions he has played at the Sharks, with most of his time being in the No 7 jersey.
‘I guess flank suits me best, and the difference between how you play in either position depends on how the coach wants the team to play. You get teams that prefer a fetcher and a big ball-carrier on the other side. Then some coaches don’t believe in the old-style ball-stealers. It differs from team to team.
‘Sometimes it depends on who is available. In modern rugby all your loose forwards have to be able to carry the ball and play to the ball,’ he adds. ‘The rules governing the rucks are so strict these days that you must have guys who are good on the ground as well as being effective carriers. Some teams will play big carriers on both flanks – it varies. In training at the Sharks, the loose forwards rotate in all positions.’
Vermeulen isn’t shy to admit he is driven by a passion to play for his country.
‘I’m no different to any young South African rugby player. My dream is to play for the Springboks against the All Blacks. I’m working as hard as I can to achieve that goal. That is the long-term goal but right now, of course, it is all about the family that is the Sharks.
‘We are a group that has bought into one plan and enjoy playing for each other. We have very good coaches, a good squad and we are all on the same page. I couldn’t be happier with my decision to come to a team that is excited about building something special.’
– This article first appeared in the November 2017 issue of SA Rugby magazine