Cape Town – So could this be “it” for Duane Vermeulen?
South Africa’s hulking No 8, so influential with both his brutal physicality and calming experience in the narrow World Cup semi-final triumph over Wales, now shifts onward to a hugely deserved first sampling of the showpiece itself against England on Saturday, at the age of 33.
It will raise this possibility, unpalatable though it will sound to those who recognise the full extent of what he offers to the national cause: is it his last 80 minutes – an entirely fitting, poignant environment if so -- in the green and gold?
Although there have been no special signals from Vermeulen either way, stranger things have happened, of course, than for a player of his vintage to quit immediately after completion of the loftiest rugby tournament of them all every four years.
Another (it would be his third RWC) seems unlikely in France in 2023, when he will be 37.
A handful of crusty, senior Boks stepped down -- either officially or as things would turn out for them -- from the international fray after the 2015 tournament, including Victor Matfield (38), Fourie du Preez (33), Schalk Burger (32), Jannie du Plessis (32), Ruan Pienaar (31) and Bismarck du Plessis (31).
There could be another handful again in 2019, with Vermeulen among those “possibles” to exit the scene.
The one thing that may just keep his remarkable engine rumbling, for at least two more years of Test service, is the British and Irish Lions visit to SA shores in 2021, one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for many players as they only come around to the different, major southern hemisphere countries once every dozen years.
Vermeulen missed out on the 2009 Lions series, as he was still – scandalously, in retrospect – three years short of his Bok debut which only came in 2012.
But whatever he may be planning in his own mind, be pretty certain that he is targeting Saturday with a special zeal anyway: not just because it is a magical RWC final, but because he traditionally seems to reserve his most bellicose showings for the white-jerseyed foes – they are more like the proverbial red rag to the bull, in his case.
For whatever reason, “Thor” tends to come to special light, for both zealous work-rate and constructive aggression, against the English.
Just as comfortingly, considering how the favourites’ own titanic-sized eighth-man Billy Vunipola should be pivotal to their go-forward plans against the Boks, Vermeulen has an excellent, dominating record against the Sydney-born marauder of Tongan heritage.
They have directly opposed each other in No 8 jerseys at Test level three times previously … with Vermeulen always, almost indisputably, coming out on top in the personal duel and being on the winning side each time, into the bargain.
The first was at Twickenham in 2014, when the Boks edged a nail-biter 31-28 and the visiting player showed significantly greater composure and focus; Vunipola made a string of basic errors on the day, to the extent that he was subbed at halftime.
But they then locked horns again in last year’s SA-hosted three-Test series, Rassie Erasmus’s first major assignment in coaching charge and which the Boks won 2-1.
Again, Vermeulen was right at the top of his game as a demonic carrier, tackler and sometimes unbudgeable stealer or “slow-downer” over the ball in the first two clashes, where South Africa prevailed 42-39 in Johannesburg and closed off the series early by winning again 23-12 in Bloemfontein.
By the time the series moved to a soggy Cape Town for the dead-rubber third Test (England won comfortably 25-10), Vunipola had flown home with a fractured arm from the Free State Stadium slug-out, and Vermeulen was up against Nathan Hughes instead.
Vunipola (perhaps feeling extremely due to get even?) has the potential to be “massive” in more ways than one for England in the World Cup final.
Thank goodness, then, that South Africa have such a significant anti-ballistic missile, if you like, in the position.
Recommendation: enjoy the ever-steely Duane Vermeulen while you still can.
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