Springbok gladiator

IRB Player of the Year nominee Duane Vermeulen has a burning desire to be the best, writes JON CARDINELLI.

Richie McCaw has an intimate understanding of physical pain. He knows what it takes for the mind to master the body when it’s on the brink of failing, and what such mastery can do to inspire a team to victory. As the record will reflect, McCaw did exactly that when he played for the All Blacks at the 2011 World Cup with a broken foot.

In the aftermath of the Springboks’ 27-25 victory over the All Blacks at Ellis Park, McCaw paid tribute to another selfless specimen whose granitic fortitude had gone a long way to securing a monumental result.

‘The way Duane Vermeulen played tonight, you would never have guessed that his ribs were hurting,’ said McCaw.

Just a week before, Vermeulen was battling to breathe. The damage to the rib cartilage was enough to impair his movement in the dying stages of the Test against Australia. While the rest of the players on the Bok bench rushed on to the field after the final whistle to celebrate with their teammates, Vermeulen was less animated, less elated, and as Heyneke Meyer would confirm later, less likely to play any further part in the Rugby Championship.

The Boks’ chances of beating the All Blacks at Ellis Park depended on Vermeulen’s availability. Their prospects grew bleaker with each passing day, as he showed few signs of progress, and even in the hours before the game there was no certainty Vermeulen would take the field.

Shortly before kick-off, Meyer asked the No 8 if he was up to playing against one of the most physical and easily the fittest team in world rugby for 80 minutes. Vermeulen answered in the affirmative, and put the pain aside to produce a Man of the Match display which inspired South Africa to their first win over New Zealand since 2011.

‘Duane is an unbelievable warrior,’ said Meyer afterwards. ‘It was a special performance.

He’s been pushing hard to be the best No 8 in the world, but after that showing, he’s pushing hard to be one of the best players in the world.’

It was Vermeulen who made the match-winning play on the stroke of full time. Pat Lambie received much of the plaudits for kicking the 79th-minute penalty goal that propelled the Boks into the lead. However, the Bok defence was tested in the last play of the contest, and Vermeulen was forced to make a decision when an All Blacks player was tackled at his feet. In an instant, he was over the ball, and standing his ground despite the New Zealanders’ determined attempts to clear him away from the ruck.

Referee Wayne Barnes had allowed a breakdown contest for much of the game, and was consistent in awarding a penalty to the defending  team. Vermeulen had played a telling role over the course of the 80 minutes, but that play at the death was the difference between a season-defining victory for the Boks and a sixth straight defeat to the All Blacks.

'After that showing, he’s pushing hard to be one of the best players in the world’ – Heyneke Meyer

McCaw spoke of Vermeulen’s contribution and mental tenacity afterwards. It said much for the respect between the two men, who have so often come face to face on the field of play with bone-jarring results. Recently, it’s been McCaw who’s come off second best in these collisions. Vermeulen’s hit on McCaw during the initial exchanges of the Test in Wellington was one for the Defenders’ Hall of Fame.

‘We wanted to make a statement early on in that game, and what more do you want than to make a massive hit on their captain?’ says Vermeulen with a chuckle. ‘Hopefully I can keep that up.

‘Defence is still my thing. I’m in charge of the defence at the Stormers, and have taken on a bigger role in leading the Bok defence in recent seasons. I spend a lot of time analysing the game, speaking to [defence coach] John McFarland and planning ahead with some of the senior players. If the team doesn’t have a good training session, I want to have an extra five minutes. I want it done right.’

When you ask Meyer to expound on Vermeulen’s virtues, the Bok coach isn’t afraid to make some big statements. The first of those is that Vermeulen’s rugby intelligence and ability to read the situation places him in an elite class of athlete. Vermeulen, says Meyer, is in the same league as Victor Matfield.

The second big statement is that Vermeulen is Bok captaincy material. Jean de Villiers is likely to retire after the 2015 World Cup, while Meyer is set to continue as Bok coach up to the next global tournament in 2019. It could be that Meyer names Vermeulen to succeed De Villiers as South Africa’s skipper.

‘Duane is as tough as nails, but what people might not appreciate is his skill level, his vision, and his leadership. I really believe  he can be a Bok captain. He’s a great leader and he’s very knowledgeable about the game,’ says Meyer. ‘Duane and Victor are good friends because they enjoy talking about that side of the game. It’s also one of the reasons Duane was the backup to Victor in the recent Championship, not as a lock, but as the caller at the lineout.

‘He’s a terrific lineout exponent, defender and ball-carrier, and one thing you don’t usually get with a No 8, especially in wet conditions, is the ability to compete on the ground. Duane is one of the bigger guys in world rugby, but he is up there with Francois Louw as the best stealer in our team. It makes it easier for a coach if you have two guys like that in the back row.’

Meyer goes on to detail what Vermeulen means to the Bok team. When South Africa toured Australasia in September, Vermeulen was at his physical best in both clashes against the Wallabies and All Blacks.

It earned him the players’ player accolade in the change room afterwards, as well as the award for the biggest hit. McCaw would also probably vouch for the latter.

‘After every game, the players give out a Springbok pelt to the standout player,’ says Meyer. ‘For the first time since anybody can remember, one player won the pelt two games in a row, as well as the prize for the biggest hit.

‘Victor and some of the older guys in the team have been playing for the Boks for over 10 years, and have never seen one player dominate to that degree. It speaks volumes for his impact. When Duane and I sat down for a one-on-one at the start of the year, I told him I believed he could be the best No 8 in the world. He’s clearly taken that to heart.’

All Blacks No 8 Kieran Read showed in the epic clash against the Boks in Wellington why he is rated the best on the planet. Read collected a crosskick deep in the Boks’ 22, took the tackle, and still managed to offload to McCaw for an important score. It was a moment of magic that proved crucial to the outcome.

That said, Vermeulen has been more consistent over the course of the season, and will continue to pressure Read for that honour in the coming months. And as Meyer has suggested, it wouldn’t surprise anyone to see Vermeulen’s name on the shortlist for the IRB Player of the Year award.

‘I always said I wanted to be the best,’ says Vermeulen. ‘The first step was to become a Bok. I feel very privileged to have achieved that. Starting every weekend for the Boks has helped my confidence and has pushed me to grow my game. And yet I feel I can still improve.

‘To play in a World Cup, and to be the best – that is the pinnacle. That is all you want as a top sportsman. Hopefully I can realise that goal in 2015, and can help the team realise the goal of winning the World Cup.’

Vermeulen will be Meyer’s first-choice No 8 at that tournament, as well as a key player in the context of the Boks’ game plan. It’s imperative he is managed accordingly in the buildup, especially at Super Rugby level. This past season, Vermeulen played 1 221 out of a possible 1 280 minutes for the Stormers.

‘Duane doesn’t have any weak points, but the only concern is that he plays too much,’ says Meyer. ‘If he receives more breaks in 2015, and is allowed to work a bit more on his fitness, I believe he will be even better by the time we go to the World Cup.’

Indeed, it isn’t a stretch to suggest that Vermeulen will be as important to the Boks’ cause in 2015 as McCaw was to the All Blacks’ in 2011.

– This article first appeared in the November 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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Jon Cardinelli