Rassie Erasmus told the Springboks a story about commitment and dedication in the buildup to the series against England in June.
The protagonists were two 20-year-old loose forwards, who were making their first Super Rugby starts for the Cheetahs against the Blues at Eden Park in 2007.
The All Blacks enforcer Ali Williams ran over Duane Vermeulen in the first half. The impact of the collision forced Vermeulen’s teeth right through the skin of his upper lip. Meanwhile, the debutant Heinrich Brüssow copped a vicious blow to the head that left his ear hanging at an unnatural angle.
Erasmus, then the Cheetahs head coach, approached the pair at half-time. Vermeulen and Brüssow were receiving stitches while lying on the beds in the medical bay. As beaten and bloody as they were, they refused to accept defeat. They begged the coach to let them play on. It was in that moment, said Erasmus, that the two boys became men.
Will the Springboks undergo a similar transformation in 2018 and in the lead-up to the next World Cup? Erasmus asked this question with the retelling of this particular story. South African rugby’s once proud physical reputation suffered a blow after a series of embarrassing defeats in 2016 and 2017. Does the present group – which includes a host of young and inexperienced players – have what it takes to get back what was lost.
Erasmus received a few answers across the four Tests in June. The Boks never wanted for attitude and commitment in the first two Tests of the series against England. A number of youngsters showed their mettle in challenging situations, while older heads like Vermeulen obliged with the big plays at the crucial moments.
The powerful No 8 produced one of his most influential displays for South Africa in the second Test against England. Nothing was on when Vermeulen retrieved a poor pass towards the end of the first half. From a standing start, he set off in the direction of the right-hand corner flag. The England defenders looked to have the big man covered, but fortunately for the Springboks, Vermeulen had enough pace and strength to drag himself over the tryline for a momentum-shifting score.
Afterwards, Erasmus praised Vermeulen for his contributions to the series-clinching victory. Bok skipper Siya Kolisi spoke of the player’s calming message to the team when they were trailing 24-3 in the first Test and then 12-0 during the early stages of the second.
Vermeulen’s commitment to the cause was patent. His desire to see the Boks regain their fearsome physical reputation and peak at the 2019 World Cup was made plain whenever he fronted the media. By the end of the third Test, most were in agreement that the Boks would continue to grow if they had Vermeulen in tow.
Then the man himself delivered the news that poured cold water on the flames of optimism. He was going abroad. He would not be available for the Rugby Championship. Erasmus said there was a long-term plan for Vermeulen, and yet critics asked if the player was worth the investment given his decision to leave at such an important time in the team’s development.
Vermeulen is aware of those perceptions. When he meets with SA Rugby magazine for an interview in the Cape Town CBD, it’s clear he wants to set the record straight regarding the reasons for his departure.
He confirms he has signed with the Kubota Spears. He smiles when I mention the reports linking him with possible moves to English club Bath and the Bulls. While he remains certain of his desire to represent the Boks on the end-of-year tour and in all subsequent Tests leading up to the next World Cup, he is yet to confirm which club he will represent when his contract with Kubota expires in January 2019.
‘Why now?’ I ask him. It’s a question many were asking after the series against England. Why leave when the team is finally starting to build some momentum? The answer, though, is more complicated than most may expect.
‘I was in negotiations with Toulon last December regarding my future beyond the 2017-18 northern hemisphere season,’ Vermeulen explains. ‘I needed to make a call about where I was going to go in the lead-up to the World Cup, and obviously I wanted to be available for the Boks as much as possible.
‘I wanted to play less club rugby, too. Kubota put a good offer on the table. I would have liked to have come back and played in South Africa. At the time of those negotiations, however, most of those South African teams were already set with players for the 2018 season.
‘My journey with the Boks is far from over,’ he adds. ‘It sounds like a cliché, because every time I have come back to the Boks over the past year or so I have spoken about how I want to be part of a special side. The thing is, I really do feel differently this time. There’s a new head coach and coaching staff, and there are a lot of new players in the mix. I feel energised. I feel like a player who has just received his first Bok cap.’
Vermeulen will leave his wife and two young sons in Cape Town while competing in Japan over the next four months. He says he will miss being with the Boks in the Rugby Championship and having the opportunity to measure himself against the trendsetting All Blacks. A stint in the less-intense Top League tournament, however, could benefit a player who is looking to peak in 2019.
‘I needed a change after three years with Toulon,’ says Vermeulen. ‘It was a great experience, but I played a hell of a lot. That was really difficult. The opposite is true in Japan, where they don’t play much more than six months of rugby. That will give me an opportunity to preserve my body. I will have the chance to recover from a few niggles I’ve picked up over the past few seasons.
‘Experiencing the Japanese culture, the playing style and the stadiums before the World Cup won’t hurt,’ he adds. ‘It’s actually crucial. Anybody who is playing in Japan before that tournament will have a bit of an advantage over others who have never experienced the conditions.’
Eleven years ago, a then 20-year-old Vermeulen was willing to risk further injury for a coach he believed in. He relished the opportunity to work with Erasmus again in the recent series against England.
‘Rassie was my first mentor. He gave me a chance when no one else did and I owe him a lot for the player I am today. Nothing has changed over the years in that I still want to play for Rassie and repay him for everything he has done for me.’
Vermeulen played for Heyneke Meyer between 2012 and 2015 and for Allister Coetzee in 2016 and 2017. The 42-Test veteran believes Erasmus has created something new with the class of 2018 in terms of the culture and approach.
‘Last November, when I joined the team in Paris before the Test against France, everybody was really down. Yes, they were hurting after the record [38-3] loss against Ireland, but I got the feeling there was more to it than that. There was a certain spark missing.
‘What I’ve noticed this year is there is more of an onus on the players. There’s no fine-system in the squad. Every single player has to show what it means to be a Springbok; that is how you carry yourself on and off the field. It’s been great to see the guys respecting and embracing that attitude. Everybody has bought into Rassie’s vision. That’s what I like; that’s why I say there’s something special there.’
Vermeulen is well placed to comment on the shift Erasmus has made in recent years, having served under the coach at the Cheetahs (2007) and the Stormers (2009-2011).
‘Rassie’s way of coaching has changed a bit,’ he says. ‘Maybe that comes from being exposed to different ways of doing things abroad [while coaching at Munster in 2016 and 2017]. Sometimes you can get trapped in a bubble of how you should play or coach when you are in South Africa. The question we should be asking is how do we get out of that bubble, and how do we bring something to the game that has never been seen before?
‘There’s definitely something new about Rassie’s approach when I compare it to the way he did things at the Cheetahs and Stormers. It’s a nice challenge at the Boks, because everyone is pushing the boundaries and looking for a new way of doing things.’
Vermeulen will be watching the Rugby Championship with interest. He hopes to see the Boks making the necessary improvements on attack and defence before meeting the Wallabies and All Blacks. He hopes the side will claim several big scalps and improve on their third-place finish in 2017.
Vermeulen expects a fight to regain his place before the tour to England, France, Scotland and Wales later this year. Ultimately, he hopes to rejoin a side that has built up some momentum.
‘I was excited to be part of the team in the series against England and I hope to pick up where I left off when the Boks go to Europe in November,’ he says. ‘To wear that green and gold jersey even a single time is special. I’m one of the older guys in the squad, but I haven’t got to 50 caps yet.
‘I started my international career at the age of 26, which is quite late by today’s standards. I’ve been around for a while, but injuries and other circumstances have prevented me from getting to 50 caps. I want to be part of a change. I hope to have the opportunity to make a difference on and off the pitch. Looking ahead, I want to be part of what should be a special World Cup squad.’