Duane Vermeulen (Twitter)
Johannesburg - Being among the players for interview purposes following the Springbok squad announcement in Umhlanga Rocks last week wasn’t a completely positive experience when it comes to any South African expectation of success at the Rugby World Cup, according to the supersport.com website
According to reports skipper Jean de Villiers has lost six kilograms and has obviously been working hard on his cardio-vascular fitness.
But while that may have been inspiring to see and hear if we were expecting him to perform well in a marathon, the additional information he gave us – that he hasn’t eaten solids since the Kings Park game against the Pumas and won’t take contact for another two weeks – wasn’t so inspiring.
De Villiers has played little enough rugby as it is this year and even though he does have four Pool games with which to work on his match readiness ahead of the knock-out phase of the tournament, he appears to be cutting it fine.
Had he been able to follow up his comeback Test against the Pumas in Durban with an appearance in Buenos Aires, where the Boks had more front foot ball and he would have had more opportunity to gain confidence, it might have inspired more confidence among supporters.
De Villiers admits that the jaw fracture that ruled him out before his comeback had properly gathered momentum was a setback.
As for Fourie du Preez, the scrumhalf around so much of the Bok World Cup hopefulness appears to hinge, what came out of his mouth was even more depressing.
The world class No 9 said he didn’t know if he was fit enough for the World Cup, and told the journalists gathered around him to “ask me again in two weeks”.
Hardly inspiring stuff, and coach Heyneke Meyer acknowledges that it is touch and go as to whether Du Preez will get onto the field at all at the World Cup.
But if that made it appear that the Boks might be bereft of a world class talisman at the World Cup, which now starts in less than three weeks, the mood hit an upward trajectory when Duane Vermeulen became the focus. Last year’s South African Player of the Year, and surely a narrow loser in the World Player of the Year category, not only looks trim and healthy, he’s also confident and, according to him, ready to get onto the field.
That is great news for Bok fans for there can be no disputing Vermeulen’s massive influence when he plays, something that was underlined when Meyer fielded him in the win against the All Blacks in Johannesburg last year even though he was half crocked.
Vermeulen’s rehabilitation from neck surgery has gone better than expected and while Meyer, when away from the glare of the press conference environment, will tell you he will only be ready after the first game against Japan in Brighton, the player himself wants to play in the opener and thinks he will be ready.
“I went for the six week check-up the other day and everything is working phenomenally well and I hope to be back on the playing field as soon as possible,” said the No 8.
“I don’t know exactly when I will play again, but hopefully it will be in that first game. I do have the Japan match in my sights. I think every player who goes to the World Cup wants to be part of every single game, that is the goal of everyone. But it is up to the coach who he chooses in his 23.
“I just want to play as many games as possible during the Pool phases. That is my aim. There are no other games, such as the Currie Cup, that I can work on my match fitness in, so I will do it during the World Cup.”
Not that Vermeulen thinks match fitness should be a problem. His base fitness is as good if not better than it has ever been as he has been able to take part in all the non-contact conditioning work that the Boks have been doing during the five weeks they have been in camp.
“I’ve done a heck of a lot of cardiovascular work. We’ve been running up and down the field like bloody Kenyans.
The conditioning trainer has done a phenomenal job with the guys and everyone is looking strong. I suppose it helps that we don’t have to travel far to go to gym, and in the middle of the night we can go and hop onto a Wattbike if we want to,” he added as he indicated to the temporary gym set up at one side of the Beverley Hills Hotel.
Vermeulen said he was confident he’d make the World Cup once he’d been told he would be by the neck specialist who oversaw his operation.
“The first time the doc said I had to go in and do the op, I asked him if I would be ready. He said I’d be 100 percent. So I put faith in him. My main goal is to just get onto the field and play that first game and then we can take it from there.
“Being able to work so hard on my fitness means the injury wasn’t the massive setback we thought it was. All I need to do now is start taking contact, but contact is one of the main reasons I play rugby so I can’t wait until I do that. I have been getting stuck into a couple of tackle bags, but not a lot so far. Hopefully I will start upping that in the next little while.
“People say that the main obstacle when you come back from an injury is getting your confidence back, but I don’t think that will be a problem for me. I am very confident in the way I have been doing my rehab.
Vermeulen underwent a fusion of neck vertebrae, which is effectively the same operation that kept Schalk Burger out of rugby for the entire 2006 season.
“It does seem I have recovered quickly,” agreed Vermeulen, “but that is just an indication of how technology has improved in the last 10 years.”
After captaining the Stormers well in the last Super Rugby season, Vermeulen could well be in line for the armband in important games if there is a recurrence in the injuries to De Villiers or Victor Matfield, or if Schalk Burger doesn’t make it into the first choice back row.
He’s also a player others naturally follow regardless if he is the official leader. His condition and his mood are therefore a reason for some much needed positivity as the World Cup nears.