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Duane: Same snag for Boks

2015-09-22 14:00
Duane Vermeulen (Gallo)

Cape Town – Seventeen weekends ... that is how many will have passed, come this Saturday, since inspirational Springbok forward Duane Vermeulen last played a rugby match of any kind.

The good news, it seems, is that the rugged No 8 will be in the selection frame – the Bok team is scheduled to be revealed on Wednesday morning – for the World Cup fixture against Samoa in Birmingham.

It is a timely tonic, if so, for a squad still reeling and widely pilloried after that shock-of-a-lifetime 34-32 Pool B-opening defeat to Japan at Brighton.

Or is it?

One of the reasons cited for South Africa’s embarrassment at the Community Stadium was that the Bok match-day squad was fatally overloaded with players well short of a gallop after injuries of varying durations.

So when the Japanese “invasion” of their try-line gathered steam in the definitive last few minutes, the huge favourites’ ability to repel it was probably not nearly as stamina-laden as was clearly found to be necessary.

The quicker that Vermeulen, still broadly considered next best eighth-man on the planet to the All Blacks’ Kieran Read, returns to best possible service the better for the chances of a pronounced revival at the tournament by the Boks.

But the conundrum for embattled coach Heyneke Meyer is how to accommodate the brutish specimen, given that he must once again balance the need for some of his players to keep amassing return game-time with great wariness over fielding an “undercooked” combination once again.

For example, if another robust element in Willem Alberts, who has only played roughly an hour of Test rugby in Buenos Aires this year, passes the fitness requirements for a start at blindside flank after a calf problem belatedly ruled him out against Japan, can you really risk him featuring alongside Vermeulen (zero international minutes in 2015) in a reworked, starting loose trio?

The hope under those circumstances would be that the likes of Vermeulen and Alberts help the nervy Boks achieve a bridgehead as quickly as possible against the uncompromising but limited Pacific Islanders, and try to put the result largely beyond doubt before the game winds down to the final quarter or thereabouts and fresh giant-killing thoughts may swirl.

Whether both big men would have sufficient air in their lungs to achieve that remains to be seen; it might be wiser for Meyer to have Vermeulen lurking among the substitutes and introduce him for the closing stages – a phase of the game where the Boks had descended into relative chaos in Brighton.

It is doubtful, frankly, whether you would be able to coax any more than 40-50 genuinely productive minutes out of the ring-rusty Vermeulen at this stage, so that will have to be considered by Meyer as he gingerly pieces together his side for game two.

Ahead of his neck surgery – seldom the easiest of medical procedures – the 29-cap former Stormers captain (all of his Test matches thus far have been as a starter) last played a first-class match for his franchise in the Super Rugby tussle with the Cheetahs at Newlands on May 30.

If he does run out at the outset at Villa Park on Saturday, the Samoans would greet his presence with a rightful combination of some trepidation, given his undisputed record as a warrior of note, but also an inevitable dollop of hope.

Yes, they’d quietly be thinking “here comes another of those crocked Boks”.

Just how cleverly Vermeulen is deployed, and how contrastingly match-sharp the immediate colleagues around him are, could help influence the outcome in this one.

On one of the official RWC television talk shows on Monday evening, retired Wallaby legend George Gregan gave gloomy Bok fans some renewed reason for optimism when he suggested: “The Boks will wake like a grizzly bear (from the Japan fiasco) ... I wouldn’t want to be Samoa on Saturday.”

It is indelibly etched in Vermeulen’s nature to wish to lead from the front for those types of challenges.

But just how much gusto can he feasibly give straight away after such a lengthy layoff?

That is what Meyer must painstakingly calculate.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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