Demolition man

JON CARDINELLI, writing in SA Rugby magazine, says no South African No 8 ticks as many boxes as Duane Vermeulen.

Ask Duane Vermeulen to explain his affinity for the rougher side of the game, and a manic grin spreads across his moon-shaped face. His hands transform into forget-me-nots as he extols the virtues of defence and physicality as a teenager would the qualities of an unrequited love.

‘I love defence,’ he begins. ‘I love the tackle situation. I love the physical side of rugby.’

Vermeulen stops short of saying physicality gives him goosebumps, a favourite refrain of the legendary Springbok enforcer Bakkies Botha. But the message is clear: Vermeulen is obsessed. He wants to hurt the opposition and it’s his controlled aggression that makes him such an asset.

The Stormers have been reluctant to rest the robust No 8 over the past two seasons. He played every match in the 2010 Super 14 and Currie Cup, and has, at the time of writing, played every minute for the Stormers in 2011. The Cape side has developed an abrasive reputation since Rassie Erasmus joined the franchise in 2008, and more often than not, Vermeulen has been their demolition man; their physical constituent that inflicts the most damage on opponents.

The Stormers could achieve nothing else this season and two monumental victories would still go down in history. They first outmuscled South Africa’s quintessential he-men in Pretoria before overpowering the trend-setting Sharks in Durban. In both fixtures, Vermeulen was a monster on a mission, and the image of him manhandling Bismarck du Plessis, the Sharks’ talisman and enforcer, captured his essence. Vermeulen stands out in the big contests because he doesn’t stand back for anyone. Reputations be damned.

Peter de Villiers acknowledged Vermeulen’s game-winning potential when he invited him to the initial Springbok training camp in 2008. Unfortunately for Vermeulen, a neck injury prevented him from getting his chance against Wales and Italy. It was to be the last time he would be seriously considered for Springbok selection.

‘Duane is the unluckiest player in the country,’ De Villiers told a media conference on 20 April. The Bok coach had named Vermeulen in a 51-man World Cup planning squad, but the size of the group as well as the explanation thereof hinted at ulterior motives.

‘He has played great rugby for three seasons, but hasn’t played a Test. He must know that he’s not far away. If other players are injured, he will come into consideration.’

De Villiers added that the selection of uncapped players like Vermeulen, Lionel Mapoe and Sarel Pretorius was part of a message aimed at the underperforming incumbents. The Bok coach wanted men like Pierre Spies to know that their World Cup positions were not necessarily guaranteed.

The Boks have lacked a good No 8 for some time. Spies hasn’t fulfilled his potential at national level, and despite the perennial promises to lift his physicality and address his defensive shortcomings, it’s clear that he’s not going to get any better.

Ryan Kankowski has been similarly disappointing. A gifted athlete with a thrilling turn of speed, he struggles when the opposition cuts down his space. Kankowski lacks the physical aspect needed to dominate a game where collisions decide the contest, and if he can’t rely on his agility, he rarely makes an impact.

If Spies and Kankowski are so obviously inadequate, it’s difficult to understand just what De Villiers hoped to achieve with his proposed message. The past three seasons have shown that when the game becomes combative, neither Spies nor Kankowski are capable of responding with the required attitude and vigour. They’re no longer bossing the Super Rugby playground either, as the 2011 competition has seen Vermeulen stepping to the fore virtually unchallenged.

The message De Villiers should have sent to his greater squad is that form will be rewarded, and that players can no longer survive on past reputations. Vermeulen is overdue a Test for the Boks, and it will be one of the great travesties of justice if he doesn’t go to the World Cup this September.

He needs to play in this year’s Tri-Nations, and he needs to be seriously considered as a contender for the starting back row. World Cups are won by the team with the best defence and the most physical pack, and on form, Vermeulen is a front-runner in both departments. South Africa doesn’t have another No 8 who ticks so many boxes.

‘The thing about Duane is that you have to study the match video to obtain a better understanding of his value,’ says Bok forwards coach Gary Gold. ‘Duane’s a strong ball-carrier and his defence is down to his size as much as his attitude. The contributions he makes over the course of a match are incredible. Every tackle and ball-carry has a high conversion rate; that is to say he has great stopping power on defence and makes good, momentum-getting ground on attack. He also has a low error rate which is absolutely essential at the highest level. He’s not the flashiest player on the planet, but often it’s players like Duane who are feared most by the opposition.’

Gold refuses to be drawn into a debate about team selection and whether Vermeulen is a better option than the Bok incumbents.The player himself is also circumspect when asked if he believes he’s been unfairly treated over the past three seasons.

‘It could have been different had I not picked up a neck injury before that training camp in 2008,’ he says with a good-natured laugh. ‘That cost me my chance. Every year I’ve hoped for another Springbok call-up, and it hasn’t come. So when you ask me about the Springboks, all I can say is that I’ve learnt not to get my hopes up.

‘Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a dream of mine to play for South Africa. Who would turn down the opportunity to play at the World Cup? But I can’t let that ambition consume me, because as I’ve said, my hopes could be dashed if I don’t get picked again. I really have to take it game by game and focus on winning the Super Rugby title with the Stormers.’

While De Villiers may not appreciate Vermeulen’s talents, the versatile loose forward is in demand. Irish club Munster are after his signature, but at the age of 24, he’s not ready to abandon his dreams of playing international rugby.

‘I’m not considering an overseas deal, as some reporters have suggested,’ he says. ‘I’m happy in Cape Town and proud of what we have built over the past three years.

‘I suppose I would like to know where I stand in the national set-up. I have the opportunity to change Peter de Villiers’s mind by playing well in this year’s Super Rugby competition, but I realise that if it doesn’t work out, there is still hope in 2012. The next Bok coach may decide he wants me in his plans, and then I don’t want the fact that I’m based overseas to count against me.’

A coach who recognises what Vermeulen can offer as a dominant player at the collision will not hesitate in handing the Stormers’ hard man his chance. It’s just a shame that a coach with the capacity to appreciate Vermeulen’s attributes is not currently in charge, and it’s a shame that such an oversight has the potential to compromise the Boks’ 2011 World Cup campaign.

Unlike Spies and Kankowski, Vermeulen offers as much grunt on defence as he does on attack. More than anything, he has the attitude and appetite for destruction that so often galvanises team-mates to similarly robust displays. It’s an attitude the Boks of 2010 were sadly missing, and an attitude the World Cup aspirants of 2011 cannot afford to be without.

– This article first appeared in the June issue of SA Rugby magazine. The July issue will be on sale from Wednesday, 22 June.
Click here to subscribe to print edition
Click here to subscribe to digital edition