DM168

RUGBY

‘Thor’ powers up against UK giants after ankle injury saw him miss out on British & Irish Lions series

Duane Vermeulen, seen here during the Rugby World Cup 2019 Final between England and South Africa at the International Stadium Yokohama on November 02, 2019 in Yokohama, Kanagawa, Japan, will return to the Boks' Test squad to take on Australia in the first of four Rugby Championship matches. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

An ankle injury shattered Duane Vermeulen’s lifelong dream to play against the British & Irish Lions. However, the No 8 has unfinished business with the Boks, and feels he still has something to prove.

Duane Vermeulen is currently in Europe with the Springboks preparing for the Tests against Wales, Scotland and England. The tour to the UK will provide the 35-year-old No 8 – who has played only four Tests in 2021 because of a serious ankle injury – with an opportunity to regain his best form.

If not for that ankle injury, Vermeulen might have gone on to realise a lifelong dream to face the British & Irish Lions in a Test series. He might have ended a decorated Test career on a high and might have departed the South African rugby scene with nothing left to prove.

As it transpired, Vermeulen was forced to watch that series against the Lions – which the Boks won 2-1 – from the stands. He used the time away from the game to reassess his goals, and when Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber asked him to delay his retirement from the international game by two years, he jumped at the opportunity.

Unfinished business with the Boks

Having been denied the chance to face the Lions, Vermeulen feels that he has unfinished business with the Boks. And despite all that he’s achieved on the Test stage, he believes that he has something left to prove.

“I said that I would make a call on my Test career after the Lions series. Then I got injured and was forced to miss that series altogether. I started to consider my options,” he told DM168.

“Jacques and Rassie asked me to stay on until 2023. I live for my rugby – it’s who I am – and I have a burning passion for the Boks. So naturally, I accepted their offer.

“I made it clear, however, that I don’t want them to carry me if I’m not pulling my weight,” he said.

Nicknamed “Thor” for his warrior-like approach as much as his likeness to the God of Thunder, the No 8 has been an outstanding servant to the Boks over 10 years.

Before the Lions series, he was named SA Rugby Player of the Year for the second time in his career.

Vermeulen made his long-awaited return from injury in the Boks’ third match of the Rugby Championship.

South Africa went on to lose both matches against Australia, and the first of two Tests against New Zealand.

In the latter game against the All Blacks, however, Vermeulen delivered an influential performance. The No 8 won a breakdown penalty at the death, which allowed the Boks to regain possession, march upfield, and win the match via an Elton Jantjies penalty. That specific breakdown turnover served as a powerful reminder about his temperament and game-breaking qualities.

Tough mental journey Down Under

Away from the field, Vermeulen had a vital role to play as a strategist and motivator. The Boks have endured more than their fair share of challenges this season.

They spent more than 10 weeks in a bio-secure bubble before travelling to Australia for a six-week tour. When Vermeulen speaks about these challenges, one gains a better idea of what the group has been through over the past few months.

“We were happy with the win and the performance against the All Blacks in the last match of the Rugby Championship. We won’t kid ourselves, though; we are not yet at where we need to be,” he said.

“It was an incredibly tough period. People don’t understand how hard it is for the players to be away from their families and homes for that length of time – and in bio-bubble conditions where your movement and social interactions are restricted.

“It was a tough physical assignment to play four games in a row in Australia, but it was an even tougher mental journey to come through all the bio-bubble challenges and then the criticism from the media and public at the back end of the tour.”

Vermeulen delivers an honest assessment of the team’s performances in Australia. Had they been more clinical in the closing stages of the first Test against the Wallabies, and subsequently in the first Test against the All Blacks, they might have finished the Rugby Championship with a total of five wins instead of three.

As it were, they were beaten by a more composed side on both occasions.

“We slipped in those two matches against the Wallabies,” Vermeulen admitted. “The team did a great job against the Lions and Argentina in preceding games but wasn’t at its best when playing the Wallabies.

“We started to claw our way back in the first Test against the All Blacks but ended up losing by a couple of points. We were really up for the rematch on the Gold Coast, but then we had to deal with all the negativity from the public and media back home.”

Game plan rewarded

Vermeulen refers to criticism of the team on social channels and in the traditional media. The Bok game plan – a strategy that relies on accurate box-kicking and suffocating defence – was slammed in South Africa and abroad.

Many fans and experts forgot that the same game plan earned the Boks the 2019 Rugby World Cup title.

“Personally, I’m not someone who engages with that side of things, but I know some players do, and they are affected by it,” Vermeulen revealed.

“The messages they received in the week of the last All Blacks match… let’s just say it was a challenging period.

“To come through all of that and beat the All Blacks… it really was very special. What’s more, we did it our way.

“We have our game plan. Sure, there are thousands of coaches sitting on their couches back home who believe that they know better.

“The thing is, we changed tactics to play more expansively in the second Test against the Wallabies and then ended up losing 30-17.

“People didn’t say much about the Wallabies’ kicking game on that occasion – how much they kicked and how those kicks put us under pressure.

“At the end of the day, South African rugby shouldn’t shy away from its strengths.”

It’s taken four games for the Boks to click and claim their first win on tour.

In terms of his form, Vermeulen confirms that it took longer than expected to bounce back from a serious injury.

“For some players, they will run and run to get their bodies ready for the intensity of Test rugby. I’m built differently, though. I need to play to gain form.

“I wasn’t at my best in the two Tests against Australia – but playing in those matches was part of the process.

“I was better in the first game against New Zealand, and I made some good contributions in the second Test.

“I’m still not at my best, though. I’ll get there,” Vermeulen said

Criticism comes with the territory

After beating the All Blacks, the Boks will head into the matches against Wales, Scotland and England this November with some momentum.

Vermeulen highlights the team’s progress over the past few months. That said, they are under pressure to win a couple of big matches and end their season on a high.

“We need to keep growing. It’s going to be a difficult tour, as any one of those teams has the ability to beat you on the day.”

The British media derided the South Africans’ tactics for much of the Lions series staged earlier this year. The Boks should expect similar treatment over the next three weeks.

Vermeulen smiles when this is put to him. The players have come to take this kind of criticism as a form of respect.

“It’s a good thing when people talk about the team. When people aren’t talking about you, whether they are praising you or complaining about you, then there is a problem.

“We had that a few years back when no one rated the Boks enough to talk about them. Now everyone is talking about the Boks again.

“Everyone has an opinion, and in a way, that is great. As a team that’s won the World Cup and has beaten the Lions, we must accept all the talk and criticism. It comes with the territory.”

Ulster move to reinvigorate career

Vermeulen will join Ulster Rugby when the tour concludes.

He’s looking forward to the new experience and to representing the Irish club while living in Belfast.

Ultimately, he will use that opportunity to stake a claim for a place in the Boks’ World Cup squad.

“I’m not expecting any favours,” he said. “Over the past few months, we’ve seen a lot of players putting their hands up.

“Jasper Wiese has shown that he can step into that No 8 jersey when required. That young kid Evan Roos had a fantastic season for Western Province in the Currie Cup. I was really impressed by the way he played.

“The Boks won’t want for options over the next two years, which means that I will have to show why they must pick me. I feel like I’ve made some good contributions recently, but that I will get better the more I play in the lead-up to 2023.” DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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