DM168

UNITED RUGBY CHAMPIONSHIP

Tough tackle – Duane Vermeulen braces for a brutal homecoming

Duane Vermeulen of Ulster and Tomás Lavanini of Clermont during the Heineken Champions Cup match at Kingspan Stadium on 22 January 2022 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. (Photo: Charles McQuillan / Getty Images)

Duane Vermeulen is back in the country with Irish club Ulster, which will tackle the Stormers and Bulls in the United Rugby Championship over the next fortnight.

The Springbok No 8, who takes his nickname from the Norse god of thunder, could not have asked for a more fitting welcome upon his return to South Africa. Earlier this week, an epic storm replete with unseasonal thunder and lightning tore across the Cape Town skyline.

Duane Vermeulen is back in the country with Irish club Ulster, which will tackle the Stormers and Bulls in the United Rugby Championship (URC) over the next fortnight. He laughs when images of flashing skies and rolling thunder are presented to him as a sign of violent things to come. And yet, the 61-Test veteran is relishing the prospect of facing former teammates at the Cape Town Stadium and Loftus Versfeld.

Vermeulen represented the Stormers between 2009 and 2015, taking the captain’s armband in his final season with the team. 

After returning from a stint in France, Vermeulen played for the Bulls between 2019 and 2021 – and led the side to Super Rugby Unlocked and Currie Cup titles during this period. 

Tackling old teammates

A few eyebrows were raised when he left the Bulls in late 2021 to take up a contract with Ulster. Since then, the Belfast-based side has recorded some important results, and they remain well placed in the Champions Cup and URC.

Their position in the latter competition, however, may be compromised if they lose both of their matches in South Africa.

Vermeulen is determined to steer Ulster to historic wins in Cape Town and Pretoria. At the same time, he is hoping to prove a point to those who doubt his ability.

“These games are going to be bittersweet,” Vermeulen told DM168. “I guess there will always be a few people who call you a traitor for leaving the team and for taking a contract overseas. On the other hand, there are still a lot of people who continue to support me, and who understand why I have moved on.

“Either way, I’m looking forward to these matches. It will be great to catch up with some old teammates, and to play against them,” he said.

Springbok coaches Jacques Nienaber and Rassie Erasmus will be watching these clashes with interest. The 35-year-old veteran, who was so integral to South Africa’s success at the 2019 World Cup, has committed to playing through to the next global tournament in 2023. Some have suggested, however, that younger No 8s such as Evan Roos (Stormers) and Elrigh Louw (Bulls) may be better suited to the task.

“I’m looking forward to facing those young guns,” Vermeulen said. “I’ve found that, as an older player, you’re often under pressure to prove yourself against these exciting youngsters who are pushing for your spot [in the national team]. I enjoy the challenge.” 

Duane Vermeulen of Ulster looks on during the Heineken Champions Cup match between Northampton Saints and Ulster Rugby at Franklin’s Gardens on 16 January 2022 in Northampton, England. (Photo: David Rogers / Getty Images)

Weathering the challenges

Vermeulen’s wife and two young sons still live in Cape Town. As he speaks about his two homes – one in Durbanville and the other on the outskirts of Belfast – he highlights the differences between the culture and weather in both cities. In a sense, he is well placed to assist the Ulster players as they fight to adapt to the climate in South Africa.

“It’s cold and wet in Belfast, and for many people coming from a country like South Africa, that can be challenging.

“The people have been great, though. I’ve been staying in a suburb outside of Belfast and feel like I’m a part of the community after only a few months. The club has been fantastic. There is a lot of energy in the squad, and we’ve done fairly well on the field.”

The European sides have struggled to adapt to South African conditions in URC matches played over the past fortnight, losing eight out of eight games. Ulster have to overcome the summer heat to beat two of South Africa’s strongest teams.

“As South Africans, we go over to the northern hemisphere, and we take some time to adapt to the cold, wind and rain. That can fatigue you physically when you’re not used to it, and it can play on your mind.

“It’s the same for the European guys when they come here. They’re not used to the heat. Some of the Ulster guys have been sweating buckets in training over the past few days.

“If you go to Durban, you have to deal with added humidity. Then you get up to Pretoria and Joburg, and you must tackle the altitude. I guess it’s about preparing for that challenge and embracing it.” 

Exchange of information

Nienaber and Erasmus have worked with the No 8 at the Cheetahs, Stormers and Boks for the better part of 15 years. When these coaches speak about Vermeulen’s knowledge of the game and his attention to detail, it’s as if they’re referring to a colleague rather than a player in their team.

Going by coach Dan McFarland’s recent comments, it appears as though Vermeulen has had a similar impact at Ulster since joining them last December.

“With regard to the individual specifics of his influence in these weeks against the South African teams, I’m not sure if it’s going to be any greater than the influence he’s had in general,” McFarland said.

“We have a style in the way that we play and we’re interested in our mauling and maul defence game. He’s had a huge influence in that area.

“He … understands the SA methodology around those areas and there’s been insight into that all through his stay in Belfast.”

Vermeulen, who has played club rugby in South Africa, France and Japan, feels that he has gained a lot from his Irish experience.

“When I first arrived, I sat at the back and kept quiet. I tried to learn how things were done at the club. I looked to see where I could contribute, on and off the field.

“After a few weeks, I started to have a few younger players coming to ask specific questions. In the matches, I just tried to use all my experience to help the side.

“It’s been a collaborative thing… I feel like I have learnt a lot from my time in Ireland. That’s the great thing about this game, and when you get an opportunity to travel to a new place and interact with new people.” 

France are biggest threat to Boks 

While Vermeulen is focused on Ulster’s campaign, he is mindful of the big Test season to come.

“It’s in the back of my mind, and I’m sure other South Africans across the local teams and European clubs feel the same way. It’s going to be exciting when we come together in late June for our first training camp. We have a lot of hard work to do ahead of a big year for the team.

“There are going to be some challenges, and ultimately we are going to see where we stand a year out from the World Cup. It’s important that we make a statement, and that we go into the 2023 season with a good chance of defending our title.”

Many critics believe that Six Nations champions France have replaced the Boks as the world’s leading Test team. Ireland, who finished second in the Six Nations, have also won a lot of admirers.

“France are definitely the team to beat in 2022,” said Vermeulen. “They’re looking like a well-oiled machine, and we will have to be at our best when we meet them this November… Ireland aren’t far off either.

“It’s going to be tough to tackle those teams back-to-back, and it’s fair to say that we will have to make a step up from our performances in 2021 if we are going to succeed. It’s going to be a demanding year, but it may bring out the best in us.” 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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