Cape Town – Will he or won’t he?
Springbok heavyweight figure Duane Vermeulen deciding between representing his country or club, Toulon, during the June Test window period could have major implications for the way SARU treats foreign-based players henceforth over selection for internationals.
In a nutshell, if Vermeulen turns his back on the Boks – possibly including the captaincy, too -- for the three-Test home challenge against Ireland next month, it could just be the catalyst for a complete or at least pronounced curtailment of overseas stars turning out in the green and gold.
SARU would probably receive sympathetic backing from many in the domestic public, and no lack of past players and pundits, if they decided to adopt a blanket policy or stronger emphasis on picking home-based players for South Africa.
They are also under increasing Government pressure, as evidenced by the controversial freeze on bidding for major global events, to ramp up their transformation drive in the Test team and it will hardly have escaped their notice that the strong majority of established big-name SA players earning lucrative foreign cash are white.
The country is also increasingly rocked by quality first-class players -- of dangerous, widely varying ages these days – succumbing to the lure of the euro or pound over the tottering rand, leaving local Super Rugby franchises struggling to build continuity and hold onto best players.
A ban on overseas-based South Africans turning out for the Boks might help, in certain instances, to slow down the exodus of talent.
But another, related issue swirls delicately and tantalisingly in the breeze: if new Bok coach Allister Coetzee favours Vermeulen as both his No 8 and first skipper and he declines any “invitation”, then Warren Whiteley shapes up as the next best candidate for the jersey by some distance on current Super Rugby form … and he also oozes leadership potential.
The rangy Lions’ dynamo, albeit a slightly different style of player to Vermeulen, would simultaneously be an attractive and public-pleasing Bok captain if he were to fill the gap.
He is the kind of eighthman who, a little like a Morne du Plessis or a Gary Teichmann of the past, just seems a natural “joint-package” of player and captain.
Coetzee’s skipper may yet come from another berth, of course; it is not as though other credible options are glaringly absent.
But Whiteley, 28, earning a chance to add on a starting basis to his meagre three international caps as a substitute thus far probably hinges heavily on whatever decision Vermeulen comes to in the next few days.
The 116kg powerhouse, a year older at 29 but potentially also still a candidate to go through to the end of another World Cup cycle in 2019, remains one of the forwards with the greatest “presence” and fear factor on the planet – and perhaps still second only to New Zealand’s Kieran Read among No 8s.
As former Bok coach and Test No 8 Nick Mallett pointed out to anchor Kaunda Ntunja on SuperSport’s “Phaka” rugby chat show on Tuesday night, he would also be a very comforting physical counter in the spot next month to Ireland’s seasoned British and Irish Lions star Jamie Heaslip, no shrinking violet himself at 110kg and a fierce ball-carrier and clever off-loader.
Regardless of that match-up, if Vermeulen is indeed at the forefront of Coetzee’s leadership plans, it would be a logical extension in many ways of his appointment of the Nelspruit-born competitor as his Stormers captain for the 2015 season, which was each man’s last in service to the franchise.
Coetzee told this writer at the time that he considered Vermeulen a “structured, inspirational kind of guy with a no-nonsense approach”.
But if he is still partial to him, as you firmly fancy Coetzee will be for his important first series in charge, then the uncompromising loose forward faces an unusually agonising choice over his allegiance in June.
He is obliged under World Rugby stipulations to make himself available for the prescribed Test window period, and SARU have reportedly instructed him to report on that basis back for duty on June 5.
But the packed French domestic season is also ending later than usual because of a scheduling “push-out” for the 2015/16 season related to the RWC 2015 major distraction in the northern hemisphere.
It means that the knockout phase of the Top 14 competition (beginning with quarter-finals) is to be held between June 11 and 24 – smack in the Test window.
Toulon are strongly in the mix for the title, as they currently lie second only to Clermont on the table, and their strong-willed and powerful president/owner Mourad Boudjellal has said he will not pay players who leave for Test activity instead during the make-or-break period.
If Vermeulen turns down the Bok call, I sense the cat being installed among the pigeons in policy terms for SARU …
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