Cape Town – The likelihood of Duane Vermeulen missing the entire Castle Rugby Championship serves as a downgrading of the Springboks’ already reasonably lean chances of winning the premier southern hemisphere tournament.
They have not done so since its previous branding as the Tri-Nations in 2009, and the absence of yet another proven, very senior figure and pack hard man for all or at least part of the 2016 event does little to suggest the drought is about to be broken.
It was revealed in a statement by SA Rugby on Saturday that Toulon-based Vermeulen, widely acknowledged as among the top handful of No 8s in world rugby, had been withdrawn from the Bok squad, which assembles in Johannesburg on Sunday for the bus trip to Nelspruit.
The Boks open their Championship challenge against Argentina at Mbombela Stadium on Saturday.
Vermeulen’s release by Toulon, whose fiery owner Mourad Boudjellal is not especially well disposed to seeing key signings disperse to various corners of the globe for internationals even during designated “windows”, has already been a contentious matter this year when he came home for the Ireland series, so conspiracy theorists may be forgiven for cheekily raising an eyebrow over the official line that he “suffered a knee injury while playing for his club”.
The French Top 14 only kicks off next weekend and the lucrative, more continent-wide European Rugby Champions Cup – in which Toulon are participants – in mid-October, so it has to be assumed that the reported injury to his right knee, a recurring one, was picked up in some sort of friendly.
If that is the case, it begs the question of whether it was advisable for Vermeulen, with Test activity just around the corner, to turn out in a fixture of such low gravitas although, in fairness, he may have been keen on getting some game-time under his belt.
He was appointed captain of Toulon in late July, although reports at the time indicated that it was pretty much taken for granted he would only actually take the reins once the Rugby Championship ended in early October.
Vermeulen apparently went for an MRI scan on Friday and in all likelihood will need surgery.
The SA Rugby media release stopped short of saying the 30-year-old, who boasts 37 Bok caps, was ruled out of the entire Championship – just withdrawn from the present national squad, which is for the two openers against the Pumas (home and then immediately away).
But if he goes under the knife, it is obviously highly unlikely he will see service in the fixtures beyond, against world champions New Zealand and also Australia.
It is a bigger blow than some more short-sighted critics realise: yes, the big, uncompromising unit had an unusually subdued role (before hurting an elbow and missing the third and final clash anyway) in the closely-fought Irish series, but he was also coming off the finish of the European season at the time and seemed weary and unavoidably off the pace as a result.
There was simply no justification for the sentiment in some circles that Vermeulen was “finished” in green and gold; he has more often than not been a model of enormous consistency and fearless, yards-making commitment at close quarters.
The Boks being deprived of his services during the Championship leaves them even further exposed in the area of gnarly experience.
From the fulcrum of their pack which saw South Africa finish third in the 2015 World Cup, they have subsequently lost lineout legend Victor Matfield to retirement and Schalk Burger to at least a “semi-retirement”, Vermeulen and Frans Malherbe to injury, whilst new head coach Allister Coetzee has debatably overlooked the claims of brutally direct Montpellier hooker Bismarck du Plessis.
It means that of the starting eight from the bronze playoff at RWC 2015 against Argentina, won 24-13 at the Olympic Stadium in London, only Eben Etzebeth, Tendai Mtawarira and Francois Louware in the potential mix for the first fresh meeting with the Pumas.
Coetzee has decided not to summon an extra loose forward to his extended squad for the Mbombela date, and that is not too surprising given that he still boasts six contenders in that role: Warren Whiteley, Jaco Kriel, Louw, Oupa Mohoje, Sikhumbuzo Notshe and the utility possibilities as a No 7 flank of lock Pieter-Steph du Toit.
The door certainly seems to have swung open wide for popular Lions skipper Whiteley, albeit a very different specimen in playing style to Vermeulen, to now retain the No 8 jersey for next Saturday; he made his maiden start in that berth in the closing, Port Elizabeth Test against Ireland with Vermeulen ruled out.
Only the exciting young Stormers loosie Notshe, probably capable of occupying all three spots, has other solid prior credentials as an eighth man at first-class level and with his explosive running power seems an attractive “secret weapon” off the Bok bench during the competition (the 23-year-old is currently uncapped).
A personal preference at this stage, with Vermeulen a no-go, leans toward a starting combo of the Lions firm of Whiteley and Kriel (the latter as open-sider), with Louw dragged only a little out of his comfort zone to be the blind-side flank.
He has played in that berth many times before, despite having been the designated Bok fetcher for some time, and has the physical dimensions at 112kg to cut it there.
Louw would also give vital balance to that possible combo in experience terms with his 46 appearances for South Africa; both Whiteley and Kriel remain novices at the highest level, for all their potential attributes …
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