Vermeulen returns to Boks’ starting lineup after nearly two-year Test rugby hiatus
On Wednesday, Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber, as expected, named a powerful side to take on the Wallabies in the first of four Rugby Championship matches over the next four weekends.
On Sunday 12 September, when the Springboks run out to face the Wallabies in Australia for the first time in two years, exactly 680 days would have passed since Duane Vermeulen last played a Test.
The bruising No 8’s last Test outing was a memorable man-of-the-match performance against England in the final of Rugby World Cup 2019. The Boks won 32-12 in case anyone forgot, on a night when it seemed like there were two Vermeulens on the field — he was that influential and omnipresent.
Since then, Vermeulen won the 2020 SA Player of the Year award in a Covid-affected domestic season and was expected to star in the recent British & Irish Lions series. An ankle injury put paid to that hope, but after two months of rehabilitation, Vermeulen returns in what feels like a second coming.
He was 33 when he last played a Test and is 35 now. Most players would be contemplating retirement in their mid-30s. But Vermeulen has never been ‘most players’.
He starts the second phase of his Test career in the same country and against the same opponents as those he made his Test debut against in 2012. On that occasion the venue was Perth, and the outcome was a 26-19 defeat, which is a cautionary tale for the Boks.
Despite Australia’s three recent thrashings against the All Blacks, underestimating them could be fatal for the Boks. The Wallabies of the last decade have not been in the same class as their great teams of the 90s and early 2000s, but they have the ability to drag the Boks down a few notches.
Vermeulen is a generational player and a strong character. He will be one of the leaders captain Siya Kolisi leans on in the huddle if things get tough at the CBUS Super Stadium, Gold Coast on Sunday. Vermeulen might be short of a gallop, but his mere presence will lift his team and give the opposition some doubts.
But due to his lengthy layoff, the Bok bench is stacked with three loose forwards — Marco van Staden, Kwagga Smith and Jasper Wiese. The latter has grown as a Test No 8 over the course of this winter and is now an established part of the team.
But Vermeulen is Vermeulen. If he’s fit, he will play.
“Duane has played an active role off the field in our team meetings and with the analysis of the opposition, and he has also provided guidance at training,” Nienaber said. “He returned to full training when we arrived in Australia, so he has been in the thick of things for a while now.”
Vermeulen was in no doubt that he will cope but admitted that after such a long time out of the game at Test level, both he and Nienaber will be honest in their assessments of his performance.
“I will keep on pushing as long as I can, until I just can’t keep up anymore,” Vermeulen said. “I will try my best and play my part in the squad and if the coaches see that I am falling behind and slacking, and falling off the pace, then they can sit me down and talk it through with me and tell me my time has gone.
“In the meantime, I am looking forward to playing alongside my teammates again. I want to try and represent my country as best I can. The next couple of challenges that lie ahead are big ones. And I am looking forward to fronting those challenges.”
Vermeulen’s presence adds to the Boks’ numerous lineout options. In addition, they have locks Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager as well as blindside flank Franco Mostert as set-piece options. It’s an enviable array of resources.
“It’s always good to have a lot of options in the lineout,” Etzebeth said from Gold Coast. “We can even use Siya Kolisi as a jumper.” Don’t expect Australia to be hoofing the ball into touch much.
Nienaber has picked his strongest possible side, which includes the return of livewire scrumhalf Faf de Klerk. The halfback suffered a leg injury during the second Test against the British & Irish Lions forcing him to miss the series decider and the subsequent two Rugby Championship matches against Argentina in Gqeberha.
Fellow scrumhalf Herschel Jantjies is also back after recovering from a hip pointer injury and comes on to the bench with Cobus Reinach, who started both Tests against Argentina, falling out of the squad.
The only major setback for the Boks is that star wing Cheslin Kolbe will miss the encounter because of a leg injury picked up in training. Sbu Nkosi comes into the starting line-up in a now-familiar role.
Nkosi doesn’t often make the bench, especially because the Boks generally go for a six/two split between forwards and backs, which they have done for this Test. But when one of either Kolbe or Makazole Mapimpi is injured or unavailable, Nkosi is called in to start and he has never yet disappointed, despite limited opportunities.
In fact, Nkosi has already scored eight tries in 12 appearances and consistently delivers strong performances at this level. It’s a compliment to his skill and mental toughness that when his few chances come, he always takes them. DM
15 Willie le Roux, 14 Sbu Nkosi, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Handre Pollard, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Franco Mostert, 6 Siya Kolisi (captain), 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 Steven Kitshoff
Substitutes: 16 Malcolm Marx, 17 Ox Nche, 18 Vincent Koch, 19 Marco van Staden, 20 Kwagga Smith, 21 Jasper Wiese, 22 Herschel Jantjies, 23 Damian Willemse