Cape Town - The Springboks should do everything possible to ensure that Duane Vermeulen, still so integral to their team spine and a thunderous player-of-the-match in the World Cup final, is coaxed into at least a couple more years of Test activity.
One of the individual standout players of the entire tournament, “Thor” is 33 … so having reached that phase in a rugby career where reasonably imminent retirement, at least from the highest tier of play, cannot be ruled out.
Having spent a season back in Super Rugby with the Bulls earlier this year, Vermeulen is due to return to his Japanese club obligations with Kubota Spears now that a first-time World Cup winner’s medal is safely in his pocket, and there have been no clear-cut statements from the Bok camp yet indicating his future - or otherwise - in the green and gold jersey.
But there must be a healthy enough chance that the rugged, streetwise player, who once again outsmarted and outgunned England’s Billy Vunipola in a clash of notable behemoths at No 8 in the Yokohama showpiece, will be cajoled into refocusing, Bok-wise, on the two-year mini-cycle to the visit of the British and Irish Lions to South Africa in 2021.
His genuine world class still so apparent, Vermeulen would be a major asset in trying to repel the collective might of the four “home nations” - including many of the vanquished, revenge-seeking English players - two seasons from now, especially if his professional club commitments in the lead-up aren’t too severely taxing.
Current appetite hardly a problem, the former Cheetahs and Stormers/WP favourite has still only played 54 Test matches, considering the infuriating fact that it took until 2012 for his potential at international level to finally be recognised.
While no doubt chuffed to have bagged both the Webb Ellis Cup and Rugby Championship in one glittering year, Vermeulen must be deeply tempted by the thought of adding a once-every-dozen-years Lions series success to his list of achievements in the game.
In the meantime, however, outgoing Bok head coach (but still heavily-involved director of rugby) Rassie Erasmus will be extremely mindful of the need to start, if the process hasn’t begun already, identifying and grooming a replacement to the blue-chip player in the medium to longer-term.
No 8 is one of, happily, reasonably few Springbok positions - as they seek to become the first SA side to retain the Webb Ellis Cup in 2023 (France) - where an obvious successor in the pecking order doesn’t spring too rapidly to mind.
When loosehead prop great Tendai Mtawarira, for example, confirmed his international stepdown earlier this week, the name of 27-year-old Steven Kitshoff, who had been running him neck and neck for a couple of years anyway, immediately seemed a fitting one to fill the considerable gap as first choice henceforth.
But what if Vermeulen suddenly weren’t available any more?
Keep this in mind: in a reflection that the Bok eighth-man role, outside of runaway first pick Vermeulen, contains an element of fogginess, Erasmus deployed two reasonably makeshift players in the role at times in the memorable 2019 season.
Francois Louw, more accustomed to No 6 flank, started the Australia Test at Ellis Park and Canada game at Kobe (within the RWC) in the No 8 jersey, while hooker Schalk Brits was daringly, successfully posted there - and as acting skipper - against Namibia.
But the common denominator? Both Louw and Brits have now quit Test rugby.
Significant doubt also surrounds the Test futures of at least two existing, experienced and already Test-proven customers who would be well-geared for the berth: Warren Whiteley and Marcell Coetzee.
Mobile, astute Lions captain Whiteley, who has 23 Bok caps, was an enforced 2019 international write-off through injury and, as he is only a year younger (at 32) than Vermeulen, he is hardly an attractive long-term replacement option.
The versatile, athletic but also suitably physical Coetzee, meanwhile, continues to suffer a significant hoodoo when it comes to serious injury, whether at Test level or on franchise/club duty.
Now Ulster-based, the former Sharks favourite is still only 28, so potentially in the mix for a further World Cup cycle if he can finally banish his jinx, and had started this year’s experiment-laden “extra Test” against Argentina at Loftus in the berth - before his day was cut short by an ankle setback in only the 16th minute and his potential RWC 2019 participation scuppered in the process.
Of further overseas-based Bok candidates at No 8, Dan du Preez, now of Sale Sharks in England, sports four Bok caps and has plenty of room for further development at 24; he is at very least in the Vermeulen league for sheer brawn factor.
Wasps’ linking-conscious, utility-value Nizaam Carr, though he last played for the Boks in 2016, also cannot be completely discounted from further contention at age 28.
Domestically, however, attention will shift with increased curiosity on the strides, during Super Rugby 2021, of players like the Stormers’ young (but already injury-impeded) powerhouse Juarno “Trokkie” Augustus, 21, and similarly uncompromising 23-year-old Jaco Coetzee, plus the Lions’ exceptionally fleet-footed Hacjivah Dayimani.
In Durban, meanwhile, the Sharks will be hoping this is a booming year for Phepsi Buthelezi, the rangy customer who was captain of the SA team at the 2019 edition of the World Rugby Under20 Championship in Argentina, where his charges earned bronze-medal status.
There are plentiful “possibilities” when it comes to post-Vermeulen Bok No 8s, with others likely to come onto the radar gradually as well.
But the nationwide hope will undoubtedly be that the burly, no-nonsense campaigner isn’t quite done yet …
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