In the latest SA Rugby magazine, Vodacom Bulls and Springbok stalwart Duane Vermeulen says he wants to play competitive rugby for ‘as long as possible’.
In a wide-ranging interview with JON CARDINELLI, Vermeulen reflects on the Springboks’ World Cup-winning campaign, his return to the Bulls, working with coach Jake White, and his plans for the future.
In many ways, Vermeulen is back to where he started at the beginning of the 2019 season. As was the case last year, he’s joined the Bulls after a campaign with the Kubota Spears in Japan. He’s living in a hotel within walking distance of Loftus Versfeld – the same hotel he called home for much of 2019 – while his wife and two sons are in Cape Town.
This time around, however, his stint with the Bulls will be different for several reasons. The franchise has a new director of rugby in Jake White – the mastermind who coached the Boks to World Cup glory in 2007.
‘I’ve never worked with Jake before. In the past, I heard stories about his methods and the way he likes to do things. I get on with him really well and we have a good understanding.
‘I’m enjoying the opportunity to learn from a guy who’s won the World Cup and then gone on to succeed in Australia, France and Japan. Maybe people look at me and see a senior player. The truth is I’m even more determined than ever to learn. You can’t stop growing and learning. You have to be open to new ideas, and that’s why I’m excited to be working with a guy like Jake.’
Vermeulen admits that the domestic competition will be like no other before it.
‘It requires a different mindset. We’re starting in October and finishing in January, which is unprecedented. You’ve got to adapt your game if you’re going to succeed in matches played in extreme heat over the South African summer.
‘We’ve also got to be prepared for the possibility of playing in Rugby Championship [scheduled for the November and December in Australia] and then going into a new season thereafter. These are strange times, yet they are exciting times.
‘When last did we see all the Boks heavily involved in a domestic tournament like the Currie Cup? In recent years, the top players have been abroad or competing in the Rugby Championship when the Currie Cup has been staged. Now we’re going to see a real strength-versus-strength domestic competition.
‘Every player and coach will be determined to prove a point after the long break. Everyone will be fighting for a place in the Bok squad. That’s what’s going to make the tournament particularly intense. Expect a lot of passion from all corners.’
Vermeulen was fortunate to get one of the last flights out of Japan prior to the lockdown in late March. Bok team-mates such as Malcolm Marx and Damian de Allende weren’t so lucky and managed to leave only a month later.
While the lockdown afforded him an extended period at home with his family, he’s missed the unique opportunities that rugby presents.
‘I’m not used to sitting still. This lockdown has been a big challenge for me these past six months,’ he says with a laugh.
‘When you play a game of collisions for a living, and then you don’t play that game at all for a half a year, it does feel like something is missing from your life. I’m looking forward to going out there and getting back into the swing of things, in a manner I know and love.
‘A lot of players have said that the break has taught us not to take anything for granted. You’ve got to cherish every minute on the field. I’m sure that we’ll see plenty of players bringing that attitude to the contest in the coming months.’
Vermeulen will be 35 by the time the Boks battle the Lions in the first of three Tests next July. After spending two seasons in the less demanding Japanese competition, and on the back of the Covid-19 enforced break from the game, he may well have several years of top-flight rugby left in the tank.
‘I feel like I was in good shape prior to the break. Sometimes these extended layoffs do give you a new lease on life.
‘We’ll see. I want to play competitive rugby for as long as possible. If my form and my body hold up, why shouldn’t I play for the next five years? On the other hand, if you’re not performing you’ve got to know when to step down and make way for the youngsters. I’m not there yet, though. I have plenty more to give.’
There’s been a lot of talk about Frans Steyn facing the Lions for the second time his career. Steyn starred for the Boks in the series victory back in 2009. Fitness permitting, Steyn should play a key role for South Africa in 2021.
Few may remember that Vermeulen also faced the Lions back in 2009. He too could get a second crack at the composite side from the home nations.
‘You never know what life is going to throw at you,’ Vermeulen says. ‘When I played against the Lions in 2009, I never dreamed that I would get the chance to do so again.
‘It’s just around the corner now, and I’ve got to do all I can to play myself into the Bok squad. I may have played against the Lions – for Western Province and the Emerging Boks – in 2009, but I didn’t face them in a Test. I didn’t face them as a bona fide Bok.
‘That’s a big difference, and something that’s driving me forward. I would be lucky to get there, in the sense that very few actually play in a Test series against the Lions. I know that I can’t stop working for the chance to be part of something special.’
*This feature first appeared in the latest SA Rugby magazine, now on sale!