Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Regular captain Duane Vermeulen’s “disappearance” to France in the week leading up to the Stormers’ most critical Super Rugby match of the season, even knowing his costly unavailability for it, was as surprising as it was inexcusable.
It was unexpected because it was so out of character: Vermeulen is about as senior and integral an individual as you get in the Stormers camp, but he is certainly no prima donna or unreliable element by reputation.
The imposing Springbok No 8 has only ever put his body firmly on the line for the franchise: he has the surgical scars to show for that, having occasionally fallen foul of the curse of long-term serious rugby injury.
Knee, shoulder, neck ... he’s taken the near-obligatory battering in the modern game, done the post-op rehab, then unfailingly come back for more bone-crunching service.
It is no coincidence, I believe, that the Stormers were in the midst of a protracted phase as relative nobodies in the competition when he arrived as a 22-year-old from the Cheetahs in 2009 – more often than not ending firmly in the lower half of the former Super 14 table.
There were other factors at play in the subsequent revival – admire him and his methods or not, the employment of Allister Coetzee as head coach was one of them – but Vermeulen’s addition to the playing mix almost indisputably helped.
It seems many moons ago now that he made his maiden appearances for the Capetonians, initially deployed as blindside flank – a role he could still perform with massive aplomb, no doubt – in a loose trio also involving Schalk Burger and a certain Luke Watson (remember him?) in the No 8 shirt.
As quickly as the tough player from Nelspruit found his feet in his new environment, the Stormers blossomed into more regular occupants of notably higher berths on the log.
You might say they have become one of the best “nearly” teams in the taxing competition’s history, and in only his second season at Newlands in 2010 they also earned their best yet finish overall, cracking the final for the first time only to be beaten 25-17 in Soweto by a Bulls team banking its third crown.
Since the introduction of the three-conference model in 2011, the Stormers have won the SA group three times in five attempts ... and for all their fallibility when push comes to knockout-stage shove, let’s not forget that this is really the “true Currie Cup” these days as the regional units are all at fullest playing strength -- Boks and all -- for it.
Give or take a few months’ or weeks’ sidelining here and there for injury reasons, Vermeulen has been central to this consistent competitiveness.
The big fellow has been suitably, fulsomely contrite this week over his long-haul dash to the Toulon home of his new employers, and taken his dressing-down from another no-nonsense unit (Stormers director of rugby Gert Smal) fairly squarely on the chin.
Vermeulen will know, and possibly lament as much as anybody, that he earns a stain on his Stormers record even as he bids them farewell. This is not something proud people tend to deliberately seek out, do they?
I know my own recollections of the “Duane era” at Newlands will be dominated more by his fearless, combative contribution to the cause week in and week out than his strange little absenteeism gaffe ahead of a finals series fixture he wasn’t even able to play in.
The player gave seven prime years of his rugby career to the Stormers and WP, and the sad likelihood in a swelling period of poaching from abroad and linked rand weakness is that many South African players of roughly his calibre may henceforth offer smaller tenures to one specific, domestic side.
In short, his team got much out of him and it will not be too long, regrettably but inevitably, before Vermeulen (he turns 29 in a few days’ time) slips gradually into his twilight period.
It was during his stationing in the shadow of Table Mountain that Vermeulen carved out a warranted reputation as second only on the planet at eighthman to New Zealand’s Kieran Read, probably the most complete custodian of the berth of all time.
That is some “silver medal” to cherish, when you think about it.
Besides, the real test of Daniel Johannes Vermeulen’s value could just become apparent – painfully so? -- next season when, for the first time in eight years, a Stormers loose trio will not feature his name.
Overwhelmingly, this man was worth his Western Cape salary.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing