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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Is that his intention?
At this stage, maybe only he knows …
*Follow our chief writer
on Twitter: @RobHouwing