Skip to main content

Heavy mettle

Jon Cardinelli

Nobody gave the Springboks a chance ahead of the showdown with England in the 2019 World Cup final. Why should it be any different in 2021, when South Africa host the British & Irish Lions in an epic three-Test series?

Duane Vermeulen chuckles knowingly when the question is put to him. England have moved into the spotlight after a series of impressive performances in the Six Nations and Autumn Nations Cup. The Boks – who didn’t play a single Test in 2020 – have remained in the shadows. 

Nobody gave the Springboks a chance ahead of the showdown with England in the 2019 World Cup final. Why should it be any different in 2021, when South Africa host the British & Irish Lions in an epic three-Test series?

Duane Vermeulen chuckles knowingly when the question is put to him. England have moved into the spotlight after a series of impressive performances in the Six Nations and Autumn Nations Cup. The Boks – who didn’t play a single Test in 2020 – have remained in the shadows. 

Believe it or not, it’s a scenario that suits the South Africans as the Lions tour draws near. 

“It’s nice to be the underdog,” Vermeulen tells The XV. “It’s not the worst thing in the world that some people are doubting us.

“That said, the recent comments have surprised me,” the big No 8 continues. “We haven’t played since the World Cup final – and that means that opposition teams haven’t had a chance to see us play in over a year. Can they really say that they know what to expect?”

It is nice to be the underdog. We haven’t played since the World Cup final – opposing teams have not had a chance to see us in over a year. Can they really say they know what to expect?

Duane Vermeulen

England were described by large swathes of the media as champions in waiting after beating the All Blacks in the 2019 World Cup semi-finals. On the day of the decider, however, they were outmuscled and out-thought by a less-fancied Bok side. 

Vermeulen, one of South Africa’s leaders and enforcers, was full value for his Man of the Match award. 

As an individual player, Vermeulen has been underrated and underestimated for much of his career. Indeed, there was even a time when mentors such as Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber questioned his value. 

Vermeulen moved from Nelspruit to Bloemfontein in 2006 determined to leave his mark on the game. Back then, Erasmus was the Free State Cheetahs coach and Nienaber served as the union’s physiotherapist and conditioning specialist.

On the first day of training, Erasmus pulled Nienaber aside and pointed to Vermeulen. 

Erasmus (left) has been responsible for the birth and rebirth of Vermeulen’s career (Photo by MARTY MELVILLE/AFP via Getty Images)

“Rassie told me to keep an eye on this guy,” Nienaber remembers. “He believed that Duane was going to be a world-class player. I looked at Duane, and to be honest I didn’t know what to think. 

“At the age of 19, Duane was tall and skinny and had a shock of long blond hair. He didn’t strike me as anything special at that stage and I was wondering why Rassie had gone through the trouble of recruiting him from the Mpumalanga Pumas.

“He was a fast learner, though, with an unbelievable work ethic. I soon realised that while the kid was raw he was extremely powerful. I began to understand why Rassie had brought Duane to the Cheetahs and why he rated him so highly.”

In 2007, Vermeulen was backed for his first Super Rugby start when the Cheetahs tackled the Blues at Eden Park. All Blacks lock Ali Williams ran over the top of the young loose forward in the first-half. The impact of the collision forced Vermeulen’s teeth through the skin of his upper lip.

At half-time, Vermeulen lay down on a table in the change room and waited for the doctor to stitch the wound. Erasmus voiced the need for a replacement; Vermeulen begged for another crack at the Blues. 

“It was at that moment that I realised that the boy had become a man,” Erasmus said. More than a decade later, Erasmus used that story about Vermeulen’s determination and dedication to motivate the Boks for a three-Test series against England.

At half-time, Vermeulen lay down on a table in the change room and waited for the doctor to stitch the wound. Erasmus voiced the need for a replacement; Vermeulen begged for another crack at the Blues. 

Vermeulen doesn’t give up easily. While he was overlooked by Bok coach Peter de Villiers between 2008 and 2011, he eventually became a test debutant, in 2012, having passed his 26th birthday. 

A regular feature in Heyneke Meyer’s side between 2012 and 2015 – and nominated for the 2014 World Rugby Player of the Year award, injuries as well as a decision to play for Toulon in France limited his involvement with South Africa in later years. The Boks certainly missed Vermeulen during the challenging 2016 and 2017 seasons, where they suffered a series of reputation-damaging losses.

Vermeulen helped the Boks claim the Rugby Championship and the World Cup in 2019 – an unprecedented double. And yet, after proving himself in the big matches, he still bats away suggestions that his position is secure.

“If you look at my career, I don’t think there’s ever been a time when I was guaranteed the chance to start,” he says. “I’ve had to prove myself again and again. 

Vermeulen was named man of the match in the 2019 World Cup final ((Photo by Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images )

“That is fine by me. Nobody owns a Springbok jersey. You have to fight for the chance to wear that No 8 on your back every game. If you get the chance, it’s because you’re the best man for the job, and not because you have a reputation as a senior player.”

Vermeulen turned out for the Kubota Spears in Japan at the start of 2020. When the Covid-19 crisis brought the Top League to a halt, he caught one of the last flights back to South Africa before travel restrictions were enforced. 

He was subsequently recruited by former Bok coach Jake White to lead a resurgent Bulls outfit.   

“Every player should think of himself as a captain,” he says of the responsibility. “I had the same attitude when I was at the Boks. While there is one captain, there are always going to be other leaders in the team who are responsible for certain departments. 

Every player should think of himself as a captain, while there is one captain, there are always going to be other leaders in the team who are responsible for certain departments.

Duane Vermeulen

“I believe in giving everyone a chance to speak up and to develop as a leader. You need to give the junior guys responsibility too. That helps with their focus and confidence. Once you get everyone to embrace responsibility in some way or another, you have a strong team.”

The Bulls won the Super Rugby Unlocked tournament in November to end their 10-year wait for a major title. The Pretoria-based side could add another trophy to the cabinet if they win the Currie Cup at the end of January.

“The Bulls have struggled in recent times,” admits Vermeulen. “Even in 2019 and at the start of 2020, the team was very up and down. 

“When Jake arrived, he made it clear that we had to start winning consistently if we hoped to make a greater change at the franchise. And that’s what’s happened over the past few months – winning has made all the difference, from the sponsorships we’ve received to the positive message that has been put out there in the media.

“Jake explained that ‘W.I.N’ can be broken down into ‘What Is Needed’. So he made it clear that he would pick a squad every week for a specific task. It’s changed the mindset and everyone has bought into it.”

Vermeulen helped the Bulls win the Super Rugby Unlocked tournament to end their 10-year wait for a major title. (Photo by Lee Warren/Gallo Images)

Parallels can be drawn between what Erasmus achieved with the Boks in 2018 and 2019 and what White has implemented at the Bulls over the past few months. Both men understand what it takes to win big tournaments and why the traditional strengths of South African rugby should be valued and harnessed to full effect. 

“Having two World Cup-winning coaches in the mix will make a big difference for South African rugby,” says Vermeulen. “Rassie and Jake have been there and done it all… they know how to approach the difficult situations and how to get the best out of the players.

“The Bulls have gone back to their strengths. We brought back mauling, and on the back of a renewed physical effort we are seeing some great tries from the backs, too. As Jake said, it’s not just about having the best players, but the right players for the job. We’re always looking to help each other and there’s a real family culture here in Pretoria.”

While he has one eye on the Lions series, Vermeulen is mindful of the challenge South African rugby will face when the Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers enter the Pro16. Having played three seasons for Toulon in Europe, Vermeulen predicts a period of adjustment. 

“It’s going to be difficult for the South African teams. I can’t speak for the other franchises, but we at the Bulls have been working at adapting our game for that challenge since the lockdown was lifted in September.

“Having two World Cup-winning coaches in the mix will make a big difference for South African rugby. Rassie and Jake have been there and done it all… they know how to approach difficult situations and get the best out of the players.

Duane Vermeulen

“We’re fortunate in that we have quite a few players and coaches who have worked overseas. Jake, myself, Marcel van der Merwe, Arno Botha, Morné Steyn have all played abroad. They know what to expect in terms of the conditions and mindset. Up there, the local teams don’t play any rugby in their own half. There’s a lot more kicking.” 

At the start of 2020, the Boks were well placed to build on their success at the World Cup. The Covid-19 crisis and resultant lockdown, however, confined South Africa’s players to the sidelines for six months and ultimately robbed the national side of a chance to progress. 

On the other hand, the enforced break has sharpened the focus of coaches and players alike. There will be no risk of complacency in 2021.

“I struggled to sit still for those six months of lockdown,” says Vermeulen. “When you play a game of collisions for a living, and then you find that you can’t throw your body around for a half a year… it does feel like something is missing in your life. It’s been great to get back into the swing of things. 

“The break has taught us that you can’t take anything for granted. You’ve got to cherish every minute you get on the field. You can’t hold anything back.”

He never has.

More stories from Jon Cardinelli

If you’ve enjoyed this article, please share it with friends or on social media. We rely solely on new subscribers to fund high-quality journalism and appreciate you sharing this so we can continue to grow, produce more quality content and support our writers.