Cape Town - It seems a little bizarre that senior Springbok Duane Vermeulen will herald only his 50th international cap on Saturday.
A player of his proven quality - and aged 33 - really should be closer to 75 or even 100 appearances in green and gold at this point.
But the slow-brewed milestone, fittingly coming in a titanic World Cup opening fixture for the Boks against arch-rivals the All Blacks at Yokohama on Saturday, is a reminder of the dubiously delayed start Vermeulen had to his Test career.
The powerhouse No 8 was already 26 when he made his debut against Australia at Perth in 2012, his path having been blocked for several years by the Boks’ general preference for the more explosive-paced but also less consistently grunt-inclined Pierre Spies ... and also by subsequent injury-related impediments.
Team-mate Tendai Mtawarira, for example, is only a year or so older than Vermeulen but will be making his own 112th appearance, while the considerably younger (27) Eben Etzebeth debuted in the same year as “Thor” yet will earn cap No 80 against the All Blacks.
One thing’s for sure: under the circumstances, Vermeulen’s half-century mark will be a particularly richly deserved and overdue event, especially as every one of his 49 caps thus far have been in a starting capacity, a further tick in favour of his pedigree.
But there could well be an additional poignancy to the occasion, as the game against the cup-holding New Zealanders is quite possibly going to herald the last time he goes head to head with another top-tier global heavyweight of the eighth-man role, Kieran Read.
That will be the case unless the Boks meet the All Blacks again in the final on November 2 - also at Yokohama - or in the playoff for third place a day earlier on November 1.
We already know that skipper Read, turning 34 later in the tournament, is stepping down after an illustrious All Black career upon completion of RWC 2019 by his country, although - like Vermeulen - he will extend his first-class career in Japan.
He is the third most-capped New Zealand player in their history (Saturday will mark his 123rd cap), and he has had a major Test career advantage over his great South African rival by making his own maiden appearance as an All Black in 2008, against Scotland at Murrayfield.
But that hasn’t prevented the pair from nevertheless boasting several rousing personal duels.
There have been eight in total thus far, and while the results outcome is skewed Read’s way - many of the matches coming during a particularly golden era for NZ and some bleak periods for the Boks - most connoisseurs acknowledge that a lot of the time Vermeulen has run his opposite number desperately close (and sometimes more than that) in the actual head-to-head scrap.
Read has been on the winning side six times when specifically pitted against Vermeulen in his specialist berth, with one draw (this year’s 16-16 outcome in Wellington) and the lone triumph for the SA No 8 coming in the 27-25 Johannesburg thriller under prior head coach Heyneke Meyer in 2014, when Pat Lambie sealed the tense game with a long-range, late penalty.
Vermeulen was an absentee when the Boks earned the famous 36-34 Cake Tin triumph last season, Warren Whiteley putting in a valiant shift from the berth that day.
But it is fully expected that Read and Vermeulen will take up arms anew this Saturday … and be potentially pivotal figures in determining the outcome of the keenly-awaited Pool B meeting (11:45 SA time).
Which of the two packs gains physical ascendancy and a monopoly of quality possession is expected to be a major influencer; both seasoned customers are tailor-made for the needs of a game offering no shelter, you would imagine, for the faint-hearted.
In short, Read and Vermeulen love a bit of “go forward”, even if their defensive games and set-piece contributions tend to be of top-notch value as well.
Although his linking and marauding play can be thrilling, the NZ captain’s preparedness to mix it at close quarters is well-established, and he will be expected to provide a hard edge to the All Black cause - a situation made more imperative by the absence until the later stages of the World Cup of lock enforcer Brodie Retallick.
Vermeulen won’t mind that: trench fighting, if you like, is his own forte, as evidenced by some of his most inspired showings coming in domination of someone like England’s brawny Billy Vunipola.
Read and Vermeulen boast pretty equal dimensions in the tale of the tape, too: both stand some 1.93m, and there is little to choose between them in tonnage, at around 115kg each.
So stand by for another titanic skirmish between the pair.
While this may be Read’s last of 22 appearances in total against the Boks (21, entering it), there is no official indication yet that Vermeulen will quit the Test landscape after RWC 2019, meaning the chance of some further scraps with a new All Black eighth-man.
He may be driven by a desire to tackle a British and Irish Lions series for the first time in 2021, when he will be nearing 35 … a tall order, but also not outrageously tall?
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