Duane owes Stormers big one
Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Saturday would be a handy time for Duane Vermeulen, one of the steeliest remaining presences in the injury-jinxed Stormers’ midst, to shift from cruise mode to a more turbo-charged presence.
The tough-as-teak No 8 was likely to be announced as acting captain later on Wednesday of yet another reshuffled line-up for the Super Rugby date at Newlands with the high-riding Western Force, given the expected absence of the core leadership personnel of Jean de Villiers and Schalk Burger.
With the veteran blond duo tipped to be sidelined for the latest fixture, it seemed a toss-up between Vermeulen, not a complete stranger to captaincy at the franchise, and utility forward Deon Fourie, a Western Province skipper at Currie Cup level, to lead the troops from the tunnel against the Aussie guests.
Whether he is at the helm or not, the Nelspruit-born Springbok arguably owes the embattled Stormers a genuinely fire-and-brimstone showing; he has been consistently “decent” for them and had to play an exhausting amount of rugby in the crisis-torn campaign, without producing an all-round performance of glowing magnitude yet.
Make no mistake, Vermeulen has been required to do a lot of unglamorous graft in the trenches, as it were, because the Stormers pack has been so disrupted and so often forced to field new combinations in the various positions that they have spent more time than they would like in retreat.
Last weekend was a case in point as a rookie, makeshift eight was progressively battered onto the back foot, if you like, in the derby against the cool-headed Bulls in Pretoria after a promisingly up-tempo start by the side as a whole.
That sort of situation hardly helps a loose forward to dazzle individually, and it has to be said that notable involvement by Vermeulen in hand-to-hand linking play or even trademark solo surges by the powerful No 8 unit have been notably curtailed for much of the 2014 season.
In short, the 27-year-old has not yet matched his towering performances of last year, when he made the Springbok No 8 berth his own and was even considered by some neutral pundits to lie only behind that undoubtedly brilliant All Black Kieran Read in the global pecking order.
The big thing about Read, who is naturally a crucial bit more mobile than his South African rival, is his strong involvement in attacking moves, both for the Crusaders and the New Zealand national team – certainly he is no stranger to crossing the whitewash himself, often at the end of some exhilarating lead-up work by various, fleet-footed contributors.
Vermeulen is pretty much his equal in all other respects in the important, multi-faceted position, although his relative anonymity in front-foot situations for the Stormers this year may only increase perceptions that Read will always have his measure on an overall basis.
Whether the under-strength Stormers forwards can collectively provide any meaningful platform for him to shine in the “skills” department against the Force remains to be seen.
Given that Vermeulen will be one of many luckless players to go straight from Super Rugby into the June international period without even the decency of a week’s break, it would be quite understandable if, deep in the back of his mind, something is cajoling him to pace himself a little for Bok challenges just up the drag.
He has been as much a victim as others have been in the South African landscape of not being significant beneficiaries of “rotation” during a Super Rugby campaign marked by the surprising and worrying limitations of the domestic conference: given that SA teams have so often been under the cosh results-wise, coaches have been under pressure and thus seriously reluctant to bench or sit out key team members.
Somehow, though, it would be heartening to see Vermeulen crank his game up a notch on Saturday, not just to help the Stormers lift their currently woeful log position but also to serve as a reminder that he has no intentions of seeing his Test place come under any critical scrutiny ...*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing