Duane Vermeulen is determined to help the Springboks restore their intimidating aura, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Duane Vermeulen speaks reverently about the great Springbok players and teams of yesteryear. He remembers the side that lifted the World Cup in 2007 and then beat the British & Irish Lions two years later. That team went on to thump the All Blacks three times in a row before claiming the Tri-Nations title in 2009. That side was feared and respected for its smash-mouth approach as much as its set-piece and tactical-kicking accuracy.
Inspired by gainline greats like Juan Smith – one of his first mentors at the Cheetahs and now a teammate at French club Toulon – Vermeulen proceeded to enhance South African rugby’s legacy. Indeed, it was thanks to players like Vermeulen, the team’s defence captain and one of its talismans, that the Boks continued to command fear and respect in the 2013 and 2014 seasons.
A combination of factors, including the unavailability of Vermeulen in 15 out of the next 23 Tests led to a steep decline in their performances and results. Without him, the Boks sustained historic losses to Argentina (home and away), Japan and Italy, and suffered monumental defeats to the All Blacks, England and Wales. As a result, they slipped down to seventh in the World Rugby rankings and lost the respect of the rugby fraternity.
Vermeulen missed 10 of the Boks’ 12 Tests in 2016. He did not play when the Boks conceded nine tries to the All Blacks at Kings Park, or when they turned in tired and largely gutless performances against England, Wales and even Italy on the subsequent tour to the northern hemisphere. Like many other Bok supporters, Vermeulen watched the horror unfold on a TV screen at home. And like so many other rugby fans around the world, he was forced to reach the same conclusion.
‘We aren’t feared any more,’ Vermeulen tells SA Rugby magazine. This statement pre-empts the question of whether the Boks have lost their aura, not only as a top rugby nation, but also as a side with the ability to bully and intimidate.
‘I had a lot of time to watch the Boks last year. I could see something was missing. The culture wasn’t right. There wasn’t enough pride in the performances. We need to get that back. We need to regain that respect for the jersey and for one another. I’m not sure when it happened, but somewhere along the way we lost that.’
Vermeulen wants to be part of the solution in 2017. Fitness permitting, he should be a member of the Boks’ senior core now and in the lead-up to the 2019 World Cup. According to the no-nonsense No 8, the attitude of the players has to change sooner rather than later.
‘I want to see fear in the eyes of the opposition whenever we run out on to the field,’ he says with a growl. ‘I want it to be a case of the Springboks being such a tightly-knit band of brothers that opposition teams fear our collective strength. That is the culture we used to have at the Boks and that is the impact we used to have on other teams.
‘Last year we forgot about who we are and what we stand for,’ he continues. ‘We lost our identity. We need to remember that South African rugby has a lot of good traits. We must build on those strengths as we strive to get back all we have lost.’
Some might take exception to Vermeulen’s comments. Indeed, there were some who condemned him for launching an attack on the South African rugby structures in the wake of the record loss to New Zealand in Durban in 2016.
‘I suppose it comes down to being true to yourself. You can’t worry about the reaction,’ Vermeulen says. ‘I usually prefer to make my statements on the field, but last year I had to speak up on behalf of the players because I felt it could make a difference. There was a big reaction and not all of it was positive.
‘What I want to clarify is that I have always hoped to be part of the solution. It was never a case of me criticising South African rugby and then not doing my bit to turn things around. That’s what it comes down to,’ he adds. ‘For me, it’s about walking the path and encouraging others to join me. It’s about coming together as a group and saying, “Yes, we can make a change.”’
To hear Vermeulen speak with such passion and resolve is to understand why Heyneke Meyer earmarked the strong-willed loose forward as a future Bok captain as far back as 2014. Indeed, had the coach survived the 2015 World Cup fallout, Vermeulen may have been at the helm of the playing group at the start of 2016.
As it was, Adriaan Strauss was preferred due to his status as a South Africa-based player. SA Rugby has since revised this policy and Allister Coetzee himself is open to the idea of selecting a leadership group and captain who play their club rugby abroad. Whether or not Vermeulen is given the responsibility, he should still have a key role to play in organising the team’s defence.
‘If someone else is made captain, I will give him my full support,’ he says. ‘If I received the opportunity, I would consider it an honour to lead the team.
‘We need to start afresh in 2017. You say these are difficult times, but it’s a new year and already we’ve seen new additions in terms of players and coaches [defence coach Brendan Venter the most significant of those]. I worked with Brendan at the Stormers in 2009. He’s enjoyed success at every team he has coached, and he’s placed an emphasis on team culture and trust between players. Brendan and I speak the same language. I hope he stays with the Boks and I’m sure he will add value to the defence. It was not one of our strong points in 2016. There is an opportunity to make a change.
‘It’s been nearly a year since I last played for the Boks [against Ireland in Johannesburg]. When you see the guys playing Test rugby, you really miss that experience. I want to start and I want that No 8 on my back again. Of course, it’s not enough for me just to be there. I want to make a difference when I play and I want to be part of a greater change. I want to help South Africa become the best rugby nation in the world.’
The Vermeulens welcomed their second son into the world earlier this year. Recent developments at Toulon, a club that sacked head coach Diego Domínguez in October and bid adieu to replacement Mike Ford in June, has also kept Vermeulen, the club captain, on his toes.
‘At Toulon we have a saying, “Ici, tout est different”, which means, “Here, everything is different”,’ he says with a chuckle. ‘We’ve gone through a lot over the past year or so with the changes to the coaching structures. It can be difficult when you want to settle into your structures and build something over the season. Maybe that’s something I’ve learned from being involved in club rugby here – you have to be prepared to adapt, because every day can be different.
‘We have players from around the world in our side, players who have won big tournaments like the World Cup. The communication within the squad is great. You may have your own ideas about a certain aspect of the game, but it’s not uncommon for a teammate to challenge you in an effort to help you evolve. I’m the captain, and a lot of the guys in the side have more Test caps than I do. They’ve enjoyed success at Test level, and may have their own way of thinking and doing things on the field. That can be challenging in a team context sometimes. As an individual, it forces you to grow and expand your personal view.’
Vermeulen’s exposure to the European club scene over the past two years should also assist the Boks in their quest to overpower the French and regain a modicum of respect this June.
‘You pick up little phrases when you are on the field in France. You get to know what their players are saying, at the lineout for instance, and what the opposition intends to do. Of course, the Boks will have to focus on their own game before that series against France. Ball security and execution will be important. You have to punish them when you have the chance.
‘A lot has been said about France rebuilding, just as a lot has been said in South Africa about this being a period of transition for the Boks. The truth is, there will be a hell of a lot at stake when the teams clash in June. We will be fighting for positions [in the World Rugby rankings] and no small amount of pride.’
– This article first appeared in the June 2017 issue of SA Rugby magazine