The Springboks need to build a team around Duane Vermeulen in 2017, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Duane Vermeulen is a man of action. This reputation has been built up over 11 years in the professional game and over 37 Tests for the Springboks.
The 2014 SA Rugby Player of the Year and Players’ Player of the Year has long been the go-to man, the one the other players have looked to when they’ve needed a momentum-halting hit or a game-winning turnover. Vermeulen has earned the right to be spoken about as an inspiring leader and a future Springbok captain.
Vermeulen commands respect throughout the South African and, indeed, global rugby community. What’s more, he has shown he’s willing to fight for a cause that is bigger than his own career, and those of the incumbent Bok players.
In the wake of the Boks’ record-breaking defeat to the All Blacks in Durban in October, Vermeulen came forward to highlight the ugly truth of a backward South African rugby system. The Boks conceded 57 points in what was their worst defeat on home soil.
‘I want to be part of the Boks, but the way things are going now, I can’t see a positive outcome,’ Vermeulen told the Times Media Group. ‘We need an intervention and I can no longer sit silently on the side and not say anything.
‘It’s always the coaches who have their say in a team environment and as a player there is no time to focus and to talk about issues in SA rugby. We only focus on the game. I feel the need to speak up, for the players.’
Earlier in the year, coach Allister Coetzee described Vermeulen as one of the leaders in the Bok team. Yet Vermeulen was not considered for the home match against the All Blacks, despite the fact he had led Toulon to a 28-6 win over Montpellier a week earlier. Instead, he was forced to watch the horror unfold from a laptop in France.
As a senior, Vermeulen felt duty-bound to speak out against a system that has been largely responsible for a decline in coaching and playing standards. The blowout in Durban, he said, was no freak occurrence.
‘It was ugly to watch. We used to be a powerhouse in world rugby. I feel for the players, but it’s partially our fault because we stay silent. It also starts at the top and we need clear and decisive leadership.’
Vermeulen was concerned about the Boks’ flagging standards as far back as the series against Ireland in June. He missed most of the subsequent Rugby Championship tournament due to a knee injury, but was fit and available for that match against the All Blacks in Durban.
At the time, Coetzee told SARugbymag.co.za that there was ‘no particular reason’ for Vermeulen’s omission and that the Boks were covered for loose forwards before such a crucial battle. Those comments came back to bite Coetzee after the Boks went on to sustain a severe beating at the collisions and breakdowns, and ultimately an embarrassing 42-point loss.
Vermeulen continued to captain Toulon over the next two weeks. Yet, when the Bok squad for the end-of-year tour was announced and Vermeulen’s omission was confirmed, Coetzee claimed the player’s conditioning was not up to standard.
Again, the coach’s comments made little sense to those who had watched Vermeulen compete in the French Top 14 and European Champions Cup. At the time, the Boks were short of senior players as well as quality loose forwards – Francois Louw, Marcell Coetzee, Siya Kolisi and Jaco Kriel were all ruled out with injuries, and Schalk Burger was unavailable. If Coetzee was serious about winning all three Tests in Europe, and if he truly hoped to build something sustainable in the lead-up to the 2017 season and the 2019 World Cup, he would have backed Vermeulen.
That SA Rugby needs to make significant changes to its structures is not up for debate. And after a disastrous Test season that has witnessed a series of historic and humiliating losses, it’s fair to say the Boks require a change in personnel.
Adriaan Strauss will relinquish the captaincy and retire from Test rugby at the end of 2016. Earlier this year, he was handed the captaincy on the basis of his residency in SA. Vermeulen, who plays his club rugby in France, and Louw, who represents Bath in England, were not considered.
The captaincy was not given to the best man for the job, but rather to the best man based in South Africa. It was a mistake, and one SA Rugby would do well to avoid in the future. The powers that be must look to build a team around a man of Vermeulen’s ability and integrity in 2017.
‘The captaincy is something I felt would never come my way,’ Vermeulen told me recently. I had reminded him about Heyneke Meyer’s endorsement before the 2015 World Cup. Meyer felt Vermeulen represented the future of Bok rugby and had all the makings of a fine skipper.
‘I didn’t see myself as that sort of leader before,’ Vermeulen said. ‘Things have changed quite a bit over the past few seasons, however, as I’ve had the chance to play a senior role with the Boks and captain the Stormers [in 2015] and Toulon [from the start of the 2016-17 season].
‘If that opportunity was to come my way now, I would be ready for it. A chance to lead your country is something you’ll never turn down. I’m ready for that responsibility. There will be challenges, but I’ve been through a lot in my career and I’m confident I’d be able to deal with them.’
Vermeulen also said he was ready to step out of the shadows of Test giants such as Jean de Villiers, Victor Matfield and Fourie du Preez, South African rugby legends who have influenced the way he views the game.
‘You watch what they do. You watch the way they speak to players so they can get the best from the team. Obviously I would look to bring my own ideas to the role, but I will never forget what I have learned. It’s not just about me, it’s about doing what you can to take the team forward.
‘I believe I have more to give. For me, the way we finished the 2015 World Cup wasn’t good enough. Yes, it was great for me to go to a World Cup, but I really wanted to win it. That’s what I will be working towards in the coming years. My big goal is to lift the World Cup.’
Vermeulen has powered the Boks to some important victories over the past five years. The No 8 featured prominently over the course of a 2013 season that saw the Boks winning 83% of their Tests, their best annual return since 1998. He was at his abrasive best in the 27-25 win against the All Blacks in 2014. To this day, Vermeulen still doesn’t get enough credit for making the breakdown turnover after the hooter that halted New Zealand’s march towards South Africa’s tryline.
The Boks have slumped to some monumental defeats in Vermeulen’s absence. He missed the 2015 Rugby Championship, a winless campaign for the Boks that culminated in their first defeat to Argentina. One month later, he watched from the stands as the Boks suffered a shock loss to Japan in a World Cup pool match. He did not feature in a 2016 Rugby Championship tournament that witnessed four South African defeats.
Nevertheless, he claims to have suffered great pain and disappointment in the wake of those losses, even though he was absent and not at fault. As a defence specialist, Vermeulen took it personally when the Boks conceded 57 points and nine tries to the All Blacks at the back end of the Rugby Championship.
The Boks have to lift their standards if they intend to be a force at the 2019 World Cup. The coach has to back a captain who raises the bar through his deeds as much as his words.
Vermeulen will be 33 when the Boks travel to Japan in 2019. John Smit was the same age when he led the Boks at the 2011 World Cup, while De Villiers was 34 when he captained the Boks at the 2015 tournament in England.
Form rather than age, however, should determine whether a player leads or starts for his country. Smit was well past his prime when the Boks travelled to New Zealand in 2011. De Villiers was never the same player after returning from a serious knee injury and should not have started at the global tournament in England in 2015. The Bok coaches erred in backing players who no longer had the physical ability to inspire and lead by example.
History tells us there were some older players who managed to maintain a high standard in the twilight of their careers. England’s Martin Johnson was 33 when he lifted the Webb Ellis Cup in 2003, and New Zealand’s Richie McCaw was almost 35 when his side won the global tournament in 2015. Johnson and McCaw enhanced their reputations as combative and physical players in their final years.
Vermeulen is recognised as one the world’s best players. Evidently, there’s reason to believe he could still be a force in the lead-up to the next World Cup. With regard to the 2017 season, the decision to appoint Vermeulen as the Bok skipper should be a no-brainer.
VERMEULEN IN TOULON
ON THE FANS’ PASSION
‘On any given day, you will see someone in town wearing a Toulon shirt or jersey. It’s a truly great experience to play at the Stade de Mayol. On game day, the bus parks outside and you need to walk through the crowd to get to the change room. The atmosphere on those occasions is like nothing I’ve ever felt. The crowds are very vocal, and when you play well, they let you know about it. Of course, when the team disappoints, the fans will let you know about it too.’
ON THE CULTURE SHOCK
‘All the shops close for two hours around lunchtime for a siesta. On the up side, it’s been great to wander around the markets and purchase all sorts of fresh produce. We’ve been eating well. Bryan Habana and Juan Smith were very helpful with letting me know about all the town secrets and shortcuts.’
ON SHARING KNOWLEDGE
‘It was interesting to spend so much time with the players from other countries, some of whom I’ve played against in Super Rugby and Test rugby. It’s been fascinating to see how they go about preparing for a game and what they look for in terms of opposition weaknesses. It’s something that will benefit me.’
ON PLAYING IN FRANCE
‘It is very different to playing back home. You need to do a lot of things, including some training, on your own. I found myself working on extra fitness when I arrived, as I wanted to be at the peak of my game. There were other challenges, such as communicating with coaches when you had ideas or questions.’
ON TRAVELLING IN EUROPE
‘Whenever you have time off, you can pop over to all these amazing countries. We still have a long list of places we want to see. That was one of the big drawcards for us as a family – coming over to Europe and experiencing all the different cultures.’
– This article first appeared in the December edition of SA Rugby magazine.