Playing and living in Toulon, Tokyo and Pretoria has given Duane Vermeulen a different perspective on the game, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Vermeulen has taken the rugby road less travelled. According to the 32-year-old – who is set for a leadership role with the Springboks at the World Cup in Japan – the journey has made all the difference in terms of the man and player he is today.
Vermeulen spent three years with Toulon before enjoying a stint with the Kubota Spears in the Japanese Top League. This year has seen Vermeulen – a former Stormers captain – crossing the north-south divide to feature prominently for the Vodacom Bulls. What’s remained constant over the course of his journey, however, is his desire to help the Boks win the World Cup.
‘It’s been a challenge living in a hotel for the better part of a year,’ Vermeulen tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘Last season, I spent four months away from my family while I was playing in Japan. This year, I’ve been staying in Pretoria and travelling home to Cape Town every two weeks to visit my wife and boys. Initially, I wanted to go home once a week, but that hasn’t been possible.
‘It’s not ideal. Fortunately I have a family that is very understanding. We knew in late 2017 that sacrifices would need to be made if I wanted to go to the next World Cup. The Japan deal was already in place at that stage and then it was confirmed that I was going to the Bulls. We’ve had to accept the challenge and move on. Hopefully it all pays off and I will have the chance to realise my dream of representing the Boks at another World Cup.’
Vermeulen, who assumed the captaincy on several occasions when Siya Kolisi left the field last season, will have plenty to share with the Bok leadership and coaching staff as they prepare for their campaign in Japan. His contract with Kubota allowed him to experience Japanese rugby – and the local culture – first-hand.
‘A lot of players are going to find it life-changing when they go to the World Cup later this year. The support over there is fantastic and I have no doubt the tournament is going to be one to remember. It’s exciting to think about what the World Cup will do for rugby in that part of the world.
‘The food takes some getting used to, though, as does the culture,’ he says with a chuckle. ‘Nobody speaks English and Japanese isn’t the easiest language to learn. Those are challenges we will have to embrace, though, if we are going to succeed.’
Vermeulen enjoyed a less demanding schedule while playing for Kubota. He certainly appeared slimmer, fitter and more determined than ever when he rejoined the Boks for their four-Test tour last November.
‘The experience of playing in Japan is one I will never forget,’ he says. ‘The skill level wasn’t quite what I was used to, nor the standard of the refereeing. Then again, my time with Kubota allowed me to reset before the all-important 2019 season. I had the opportunity to recover from a few niggles.
‘It was good to get away from the grind of European rugby. I don’t think people appreciate how mentally draining the game can be in that part of the world. Japan gave me a bit of a breather. I felt I could let go a bit.
‘I missed the Rugby Championship while I was in Japan. When I returned to the Boks for the end-of-year tour, I found the side more mature than it was in that series against England in South Africa. The individuals had a greater understanding of their roles within the set-up. There was no room for complacency and the message was clear: you’re going to have to fight to stay in this set-up and increase your chances of going to the World Cup. It was pleasing to see.’
Vermeulen has a reputation as a straight-talker. Some criticised the comments made by the No 8 in the wake of the Boks’ 57-15 loss to the All Blacks in 2016 – the Boks’ worst defeat on home soil. While Vermeulen took aim at the flawed South African rugby system, it was always his intention and desire to return to the national set-up sooner rather than later and improve the standards from within. And in 2017 and 2018, he did exactly that. Thanks largely to his efforts at the breakdowns and gainline, the Boks ground out some important wins and regained some respect.
The initial stages of the 2019 season witnessed Vermeulen on a similar mission at the Bulls. The team has attempted to marry the traditional physical and kicking strengths of the franchise – which haven’t been evident in recent campaigns – with a stronger attacking approach.
‘It’s been a rollercoaster ride,’ he admits. ‘We win, then we lose, then we win again. It’s been difficult to build any rhythm and confidence on the back of those results. Ultimately, we need to take a look at ourselves and ask why we lost some games we really should have won. Perhaps it’s immaturity. In any case, we need to work towards addressing the issues.’
Much was made about the former Stormers and Western Province player joining the Cape franchise’s arch-rivals. The media hyped up Vermeulen’s return to Newlands before the north-south derby in April. There were a few boos when the No 8 emerged from the tunnel on game day.
While he learned a great deal during his time with the Stormers, Vermeulen doesn’t regret his decision to move to the Bulls.
‘The culture at the Bulls is very different to what I experienced at the Stormers,’ he says. ‘I feel like it’s a better fit for me. The team sticks together, on and off the pitch. We do a lot of things together outside rugby. I enjoyed my time in Cape Town, but the reality is there are a lot of distractions down there and everybody tends to do their own thing when they’re not focusing on rugby.’
Vermeulen has also taken it upon himself to get the crowds back to Loftus Versfeld and rekindle the passion for rugby in the region. Only 7 458 fans watched the Bulls beat the Waratahs in round 12 of Vodacom Super Rugby. That number swelled to 23 366 when the Crusaders came to Pretoria, thanks in large to Vermeulen’s call to action.
‘Players want to see supporters in the stands, and I’m no different,’ he says. ‘The disappointing thing for me is the drop in standards and expectations. We had 25 000 people at Loftus for our opening game against the Stormers. Afterwards, one of the senior players told me he was thrilled to see so many fans in the stands. That comment broke my heart. When I think back to when I was with the Stormers between 2009 and 2015 we’d play in front of big crowds on a regular basis.
‘Maybe there are other reasons for the decline in attendance. Maybe there is too much rugby on the go. I’m not the guy to say. What I don’t agree with is people who say the attendance is a reflection of the results. There will always be a winner and a loser on game day, and even in the bad times you’d expect to see a decent turnout. The problem is not limited to the Bulls, of course. It’s an issue across the tournament.
‘There are so few youngsters at the games nowadays,’ he adds. ‘I hope they aren’t losing the love for the game. I have two boys and they can’t get enough of rugby. To see that sparkle in their eyes, that excitement, whenever the conversation moves to rugby… it’s inspiring. I would hope this is the case across the country and that the situation improves in the coming years.’
Vermeulen’s focus will soon shift to the all-important tournament in Japan. He played a key role for the Boks at the last World Cup – throwing an outrageous offload in the dying moments of the quarter-final against Wales to set up Fourie du Preez for the game-winning try.
This time will be different. Vermeulen will travel to the competition as one of the senior statesmen and the team will include fewer seasoned players.
‘What needs to be stressed is the growth of the side and key individuals since the start of the 2018 season,’ he says. ‘We won’t have the same side we did in 2015, at least not in terms of Test caps. That said, I have a feeling we might surprise a few people at this World Cup.’