Duane Vermeulen has done rugby proud, both on and off the field
The Springbok No 8 formally retired from all rugby this week after playing 76 Tests in the green-and-gold jersey and being a highly valued member of two Rugby World Cup-winning teams.
The tepid November sky in London matched the mood in the Springbok camp 48 hours after a lacklustre performance against Ireland in Dublin had ended in defeat.
This was in 2014, just a month after the Springboks had beaten the All Blacks in thrilling fashion at Ellis Park. Bok No 8 Duane Vermeulen, playing with badly bruised ribs that day, was man of the match against New Zealand. He was immense. It was like there were two of him on the field. It felt as if he was everywhere, all at once.
But facing the media on the mezzanine level of the Royal Gardens Hotel in Kensington after a chastening 29-15 hiding at the Aviva Stadium so soon after beating the All Blacks, Vermeulen was in no mood for excuses.
Defence coach John McFarland was also at the top table. When the question was put to them that the Boks had been complacent against Ireland, the coach tried to deflect. Vermeulen, though, nodded in the affirmative. “Yes, we were complacent,” came his straightforward reply.
This moment summed up the mighty Vermeulen in a few words. As a player and a person, he was – and is – honest. There were no frills, no shirking of responsibility and no excuses. What you saw was what you got.
Vermeulen played hard and fair. He played with skill and passion – with guts and nous and flair and steel. He competed with honesty and total commitment. He took those same traits into every facet of the job and never shied away from tough questions or gave trite answers.
Vermeulen was the consummate professional rugby player, who respected the game, his peers and opponents, but he was never afraid to stand up for what he believed to be right.
In 2016, with the Springboks in turmoil, having just been thrashed 57-15 by the All Blacks in Durban, Vermeulen was on the outside, having been overlooked for selection because he was in Toulon.
Watching the game in France and seeing his beloved Boks so ragged, joyless and clueless, he spoke out.
Putting his Test future in jeopardy, Vermeulen revealed the depth of his misery to this reporter and demanded that players have a voice in the search to find solutions.
“I want to be part of the Boks, but the way things are going now I can’t see a positive outcome,” Vermeulen said.
“We need an intervention. I can’t sit silently on the side and say nothing any more. I feel it’s always the coaches that have their say in a team environment, and as a player there is no time to focus and to talk about issues in SA Rugby.
“We tend to only focus on the game itself. I feel the need to speak up as a player‚ for the players. I still want to play, be a part of the best players in the country and represent the Boks with all I have. But at the moment I can’t see why players would commit 100%. That’s a huge problem.
“Where did everything go wrong? It was ugly watching the game on Saturday. We [South Africa] were a powerhouse in world rugby and I feel it is my duty to also make a stand and say something on the record about the situation.
“I don’t know how much respect there is for players any more. I feel for them, and it’s partially our fault because we stay silent. But it also starts at the top and we need clear and decisive leadership.”
SA Rugby called for a coaching indaba at the end of the 2016 season, which Vermeulen lauded, but he still demanded that players be part of the discussions.
“I believe that this coaching indaba is the best thing we can do right now‚” Vermeulen said at the time. “But I know from experience that the arrogance of some coaches in South Africa might be a problem because I don’t believe they will share all they have.
“At this meeting everyone must say what they want to say, but in the end we have to reach a common goal about how we as South Africans want to play the game. Every detail, from set pieces, attack and defence, must be defined and set out in a plan and everyone must play the same. In that way we will improve our skills and ability.”
These were prescient comments and showed not only his passion for the Boks and South African rugby, for whom he spilled much blood and sweat, but also a deeper understanding of tapping into traditional strengths.
It was no surprise that when Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber took over the upper echelons of South African coaching in 2018, they immediately sought to establish a distinct identity. It was the same vision Vermeulen had shared two years earlier.
A team player
Vermeulen was integral to the RasNaber era. He hoped to be Bok captain, but when it went to Siya Kolisi he never moped. Instead he threw his considerable influence and experience behind the new skipper.
He captained the Boks four times when Kolisi was not available, but in a sense he was the totemic sergeant major of the group to Kolisi’s more polished officer.
Vermeulen was man of the match in the 2019 Rugby World Cup final and fought his way through four more tough years of Covid and injuries to play a vital role, at the age of 37, in the successful 2023 campaign too.
Even though he lost his starting place to Jasper Wiese earlier this year, he kept fighting back and, by the knockout stages of Rugby World Cup 2023, was again the first-choice No 8.
His power, defence, prowess over the ball, link play, line-out and mauling work, and his manic desire to win, were essential attributes in the most successful era of Bok rugby.
Vermeulen, who hails from Mbombela in Mpumalanga, made his Test debut against Australia in Perth in 2012 and concluded his international journey in the World Cup final against New Zealand in Paris.
He also won the SA Rugby Player of the Year Award twice (2014 and 2020), along with an elite club of only five players who have won the award more than once since the advent of professional rugby.
At provincial level, Vermeulen and the late Springbok loose forward Theuns Stofberg are the only players who have won the Currie Cup with three different unions. Vermeulen lifted the coveted gold trophy with the Cheetahs (2007), Western Province (2012) and the Bulls (2020).
Vermeulen’s rugby successes speak for themselves. But it was his integrity and character that set him apart from most.
He stood up for himself and for the players. He stood up for the pride and good name of the Boks, and he stood for excellence.
Vermeulen embodied the best of South African rugby in every possible way because he was authentic and honest. DM
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.