Johannesburg - They are only three matches into the Rassie Erasmus era, but already what has become abundantly clear is that the players are playing their hearts out for their new coach, and in no-one is that more evident than in Duane Vermeulen.
Injuries and his commitment to French club Toulon, who may have made demands on him that made it hard to give his complete heart and soul to the Boks, doubtlessly hampered Vermeulen during Allister Coetzee’s stint as coach, according to SuperSport.com.
He had been unlucky not win the World Player of the Year award in one of Heyneke Meyer’s years as coach, but somehow in his limited involvements with the Boks in 2016 and 2017 it didn’t look like they were getting the Full Monty.
Perhaps he is happier now playing under the coach who discovered him and put him on the road to becoming the player he has become.
It was Erasmus, when he was coaching the Cheetahs more than a decade ago, who spotted Vermeulen playing for the Mpumalanga Pumas and lured him to Bloemfontein and then later, when he was coach of the Stormers, to Cape Town.
“Yes this was a massive test for me,” said Vermeulen after his starring role in the 23-12 win that clinched the series against England for the Boks at the weekend.
“I have played a good couple of tests for South Africa in South Africa, but this was my first in Bloemfontein. It was special for me because in a sense this is where I started my career and I was playing for Rassie then and now I am playing for Rassie again. You could say I have come full circle.”
What might be driving Vermeulen, who is still officially listed as unattached as he has left Toulon but has yet to commit to a Super Rugby franchise for next year, is the new spirit and culture adrift in a young team that has come together extraordinarily well in a short space of time.
The victory over England is given extra significance by the number of new players who have been blooded.
“It’s been a big start for us and definitely the start of a new era. There are a lot of youngsters in the squad. We had a capping ceremony where there were 16 new guys being capped. Surely that is unprecedented. And what has been good is that all of them have put up their hands. There is a lot of excitement building up to next year’s World Cup.
“This (series win) was just the first hurdle for us and next week will be another hurdle for us. There is a goal we are working towards,” he added.
If anyone needed evidence that the Bok mission in this series as always been a 3-0 clean sweep, those last words provide that evidence.
Vermeulen was the one Bok who was prepared to talk out in the media last year about how the players suffered at the hands of the confusion that sometimes reigns at the top of South African rugby, but he has clearly been invigorated by being back in a Bok squad that is being well prepared, superbly coached and professionally run.
Erasmus has come across as very composed in his off-field role, and that has translated to composed performances on it.
“I can’t explain it but it is definitely not something we prepare for,” said the No8 of the Bok habit of falling behind early in games in this series. “England exploited us on a lot of occasions and it is a sign that there is still some work to be done. It was great to see the fight from the guys in the squad.
“For a you team, there is a hell of a lot of composure, and that suggests a lot of potential for this team going forward. I am really happy and excited about the prospect of being with this squad for the next two years. What is happening is just amazing to see.
“You could feel from last week that now it is just a completely different story. The message we got from the guys handing out the jerseys was that we have to earn respect, and that is the most important thing for us. You have to give everything for the guy next to you. That is how diamonds are made.”
The theme of standing together came through at the stage of the first half in Bloemfontein where England became a little over-truculent with their approach. It led to a series of brawls and incidents that referee Roman Poite struggled to control.
“In a way we expected that to happen (that England would come looking for a fight). Some guys in the England squad are seen as their talisman and we knew we had to handle them. We resolved to stand together. It is about protecting your mate. You need to do that sometimes,” he said.
But it was Vermeulen’s blocking play rather than his involvement in any rough stuff that stood out in Bloemfontein, and it wasn’t something he could have done without the platform provided by a good team performance.
“I don’t know where this game rates for me in terms of my best performances, but it was a great team performance and you can’t really stand out as a player if the whole team didn’t lift up their hands. There was still a lot that was left out there that we could have done, but it was great to pull off the win, and to top that with the man of the match award was good.”
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