Duane: The Boks’ wasted heavyweight?

2017-07-21 07:38
Duane Vermeulen (Gallo Images)

Cape Town – Duane Vermeulen seems to be flirting increasingly, and many might contend extremely sadly, with becoming a forgotten giant – or should that be near-giant? -- of Springbok rugby.

The revelation in midweek that the brawny No 8 has undergone surgery for a groin injury, keeping him off the park for some three months, means he misses – assuming the good likelihood Allister Coetzee would have involved him for the 2017 version – a third successive full Castle Rugby Championship for the Springboks.

That’s right, his last appearance in the premier southern hemisphere competition came when the Boks satisfyingly pipped the All Blacks 27-25 in Johannesburg at the end of the 2014 tournament, courtesy of that cool, late long-range penalty strike by substitute Pat Lambie.

Vermeulen played the full 80 minutes and was an influential figure, albeit that the game was really dead-rubber stuff given New Zealand’s already secure hold on the trophy rights.

It is also the last experience (something perhaps not irrelevant?) of the Boks beating their great old rivals; they’ve come up short four times since.

But that’s the big loose forward’s last taste of the Championship -- for usually injury-related reasons -- and somehow sums up a more general phenomenon of Vermeulen not having given South Africa nearly the volume of Test service so far that his talent and steeliness in top-tier conflict warrants.

The former Stormers and Cheetahs favourite, now 31, meaning that he is unavoidably nearing the twilight phase of his career at all levels, has 37 caps, which is naturally an awful lot better than a kick in the chops but also a strangely low international tally for a player of his almost indisputable stature.

Often drawn into comparisons with All Black counterpart Kieran Read, who is the same age, it will be quite unedifying to the pro-Duane lobby to know that the latter has already brought up 100 Test appearances (in that nail-biting, controversial final game against the British and Irish Lions).

In those terms … well, with Vermeulen a gaping 63 caps off Read’s pace, there just is no comparison, is there?

Similarly, weigh up the Nelspruit-born competitor with someone like compatriot and former Stormers colleague Eben Etzebeth: the equally (or more?) bruising forward has raced to 57 caps by the age of 25.

That is a whole 20 more than Vermeulen, and bear in mind that both debuted in 2012.

You do just wonder if the rugged eighth-man – and still a perfectly feasible option as a blindside flanker – carries some niggling semblance of grievance over the fact that he was only first recognised at Test level at the pretty advanced age of 26, against Australia in a tense 26-19 loss in Perth.

He had already been playing very compelling first-class rugby for several seasons, yet the Boks clung stubbornly to Pierre Spies, for the most part, at No 8.

An almost freakish athlete who retired from pro rugby fairly recently, the former Bulls stalwart seldom made the most of his physical blessings at the highest level, yet amassed 53 Test caps in an eight-year period, a tally that may yet prove enough to eclipse Vermeulen when both, and not just one, are sitting back and reflecting on their paid years in the oval-ball game.

Of course Vermeulen is light years shy of the most-capped Springbok, Victor Matfield (127), with whom he nevertheless shared a good number of dressing rooms, and there are exactly 50 compatriots in total with more appearances than he sports. (The most decorated loose forward at present is Schalk Burger – 86 caps.)

With respect, a fair number of those are arguably lesser players than “Thor” is, too.

Considering that another high-profile overseas-based Bok, 30-year-old Frans Steyn, has added further Test caps recently after a gap of almost five years also suggests there is hope yet that Vermeulen might return to the green-and-gold cause at some point.

Both have had their tiffs with the rugby establishment in South Africa, though Steyn possibly the more acrimoniously over the years. So if HE can make it back …

Another reason for optimism among those who still value what Vermeulen offers – you want men who determinedly don’t take backward steps when World Cups come along, especially – is that the Bok coach is permitted by clear new policy, in a RWC year, to pick whoever he likes, regardless of home club or franchise base.

The player in question will be 33 by the time the Japan-staged extravaganza comes along in 2019, and many with legs older than his have scrapped for the Webb Ellis Cup. At worst, you’d still want a gladiator like him in your broadest squad, wouldn’t you?

That said, my own rising fear is that Vermeulen, increasingly missing swathes of keynote activity for South Africa, runs the risk of falling increasingly off the required pace of top-level Test battle if he stays stubbornly glued, for too long, to the limitations of the French Top 14.

I wonder if his best chance of adding to those somehow unsatisfactory 37 caps won’t be to return to our shores a good bit ahead of RWC 2019.

Is that his intention?

At this stage, maybe only he knows …

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

Read more on:    springboks  |  pat lambie  |  duane vermeulen  |  rugby


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