Duane Vermeulen is ready to launch back into action in the green and gold for the first time since the Rugby World Cup final in 2019 after making a full recovery from surgery to his ankle, and the experienced Springbok No 8 says he will continue to give his all for his team and country.
Vermeulen missed the Castle Lager Lions Series as well as the Tests against Georgia and Argentina in the last two months on his road to recovery, but the powerful No 8 – who earned the Man of the Match award in the World Cup final and was named the SA Rugby Player of the Year in 2020 – is back in the thick of things at training and is expected to play a key role as the Boks attempt to defend their Castle Lager Rugby Championship title.
While he was positive on the road forward, Vermeulen admitted missing the opportunity to line up against the British & Irish Lions in the Springbok jersey was a disappointment. He played twice againt the famous touring side in red jerseys in 2009, for DHL Western Province and the Emerging Springboks.
“It was tough missing out on the Castle Lager Lions Series,” said Vermeulen, who has 54 Test caps for South Africa.
“Playing against the British & Irish Lions was one last item on my bucket list that I missed out on. But fortunately, I was part of the squad and being on the field as a water boy had me pumped up.
“I’m now looking forward to running out there with the guys (in the Castle Lager Rugby Championship), training and putting in the hard yards with the squad.”
The powerhouse admitted that his ankle injury was worse than initially suspected, but that he was delighted to be able to contribute to the team during the historic series.
“My injury was a bit more severe than everyone thought,” said Vermeulen.
“I wanted to be back for the first Test against the British & Irish Lions, and I tried hard, but I spoke to Jacques (Nienaber, Springbok coach) and told him that I will drop the team if I play. I tried to get fit for the following games, but I wasn’t able to play.
“That said, sitting on the sideline and running water allows one to get into the coaches’ heads and it offered me the opportunity to contribute by conveying those messages to the players, so that was a nice way to get back into the squad. And now I’m ready to go.”
When quizzed on the possibility of holding on for another Rugby World Cup appearance in 2023, Vermeulen said: “I’ll keep pushing as long as I can until I can’t keep up anymore.
“I told Jacques I’ll try my best, but if he sees that I can’t keep up, he must sit down with me and tell me it is time to move on.
“For now, I am still pushing hard and trying my best with my team-mates, and I’m giving my best for my country, and if that pushes me to another Rugby World Cup, then that’s fine with me.”
Vermeulen was encouraged with the strides made by the Springboks so far this season after missing out on international rugby since the World Cup final, but he said as with any team there was room for improvement.
“One can always improve,” said Vermeulen.
“We took small steps starting with the Georgia Test, then the SA ‘A’ side matches and the first Test against the British & Irish Lions.
“It was nice to see the guys getting continuity even though we slipped in the one Test (against the British & Irish Lions). From there on in we’ve been taking one step at a time in the right direction.
“We still have a lot to work on because of the time spent apart (due to the COVID-19 pandemic), but hopefully we are moving in the right direction.”
World Rugby looking at innovations to ‘reimagine’ rugby
World rugby officials have taken the first steps towards ‘reimagining’ rugby.
Last week, administrators, coaches and officials from all the leading nations formulated a series of proposals that once assessed, could be put into action without needing to change laws.
Ideas for consideration include a ‘shot clock’ timer on scrums, lineouts and goal-kicks, all aimed at speeding up the game before next year’s Rugby World Cup.
Fans are also likely to have better in-stadium experiences in future with improved ground access to the interactions between referees and television match officials.
Urgency in improving game quality has been a quick outcome from concerns seen in the November internationals, especially the low amount of time the ball was in play and the number of stoppages in games.
Water carriers are likely to have less time on the field in future.
A countdown shot clock, available for all to see on big screens at grounds, could see greater urgency from set-pieces and goal-kickers having to complete their shots at goal within time limits.
Limits of 60 seconds for a penalty and 90 seconds for conversions, already in law, were rarely enforced as many kickers regularly took longer.
France already operates a clock on goal-kicks in its Top 14 competition.
Referrals to TMOs would faster, while spectators would receive better explanations about why incidents were under review.
The suggestions will be considered over the next few weeks.
A fertile breeding ground for international players
One of the significant features to come out of the Springboks’ Castle Lager Outgoing Tour this month – and the November international series in general – was how it underlined the role played by the Vodacom United Rugby Championship in breeding players for successful roles in their national teams.
Indeed, while Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber was initially criticised for ignoring home based players who’d made their names in the Vodacom URC, by the end of the calendar year that had changed, with several newcomers who either first captured the eye in the 16-team cross-hemisphere competition or grew their game there, making an indelible mark.
Understandably, the 2021/22 finalists, the eventual champions DHL Stormers and the Vodacom Bulls, led the way when it came to providing breakout opportunities for players within their system.
Kurt-Lee Arendse, who scored the thrilling try that had Twickenham aghast and even England supporters marvelling at his pace and skill, was one such player.
Arendse made his debut for the Boks in the second Test against Wales in Bloemfontein in July, but it was after France-based Cheslin Kolbe was injured in the third and deciding game against the Welsh that Arendse got his chance to show that he could transfer his sublime form for the Bulls in the Vodacom URC onto the international stage.
He turned in a stellar performance in his first outing against the All Blacks in Nelspruit in August, with his pace and his mastery in the air being a constant thorn to the New Zealanders and he capped it with the opening try of the game.
Unfortunately, Arendse blotted his copybook when red carded following an unfortunate clash with an airborne Beauden Barrett and the injury sustained in that incident, plus the subsequent suspension, prevented him from playing for much of the rest of the Boks’ Castle Lager Rugby Championship campaign.
He did return though for the final game against Argentina in Durban as a replacement and in no time at all after he came on, Arendse scored one of his trademark tries, running it in from near the Pumas 10 metre line, off the last move of the game.
The Boks didn’t hit target in that game, and ended second in the Rugby Championship, but Arendse’s star shone, as it did again on the end of season tour.
Arendse was a big contributor to the great Bok counter-attacking that appeared to stun the French in Marseille, his opening try and then the follow up to complete the brace was a talking point when Italy were laid to the sword in Genoa, and then came the Twickenham highlight to the tour.
Arendse is being talked about as a special player, and it was in the Vodacom URC that he first got experience of playing against overseas players and overseas conditions.
Ditto his young Vodacom Bulls team-mate Canan Moodie, who made his Test debut at the age of just 19 as Arendse’s replacement during the international season. His excellent try, plucking a kick out of the air and then running 30 metres to score, was the turning point in the Boks’ favour against the Wallabies in Sydney and will be part of any end of year highlights package.
Moodie started the 2022 calendar year playing Currie Cup rugby for the Bulls, and made a big statement in his debut against DHL Western Province before quickly being elevated into the Vodacom URC team, where his potential was picked up by the national coaches.
Elrigh Louw was another Bulls player who has used the Vodacom URC as a platform to bid for national honours, and he played in the competition in its previous guise as the PRO14 when he was at the Southern Kings.
That was where Louw was first spotted by South Africa’s Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus, probably on the recommendation of the then Kings DOR Robbie Kempson.
Louw played for the SA ‘A’ team in November, but in his absence the 2021/22 Vodacom URC Player of the Year and Players’ Player of the Year, Evan Roos, made full use of his opportunity.
With only the one cap earned in the second Test against Wales to his credit before the tour, Roos played off the bench in the destruction of Italy before transferring his Vodacom URC form to the international stage in London a week later. In that game, fellow DHL Stormers player Marvin Orie also showed he belongs at international level.
Although Orie had played for the Boks before, and was first capped while still at the Emirates Lions, this was his breakout year at international and he confirmed it at Twickenham, where no doubt his experience of being part of the winning Stormers effort in the Vodacom URC final helped his confidence.
His Stormers teammate Salmaan Moerat would have added more Bok appearances in 2022 were he not playing behind arguably the world’s finest lock, Eben Etzebeth, who will grace the Vodacom URC in the colours of the Cell C Sharks going forward.
Deon Fourie and Manie Libbok were two other DHL Stormers players who joined Roos and Moerat in making their Bok debuts this year, with Libbok looking the part as a replacement in Genoa.
Libbok is one of the Vodacom URC’s biggest success stories – not long ago he was struggling to establish himself in the starting teams of the Bulls and Sharks, but thanks to the platform given to him by the Stormers, he has grown into a genuine international quality player.
Which of course is exactly what Damian Willemse is now. The utility back had also played for the Boks before this year, and was with them as a replacement at the Rugby World Cup in Japan in 2019.
But it was off the back of his Vodacom URC form, and the experience of being in the winning team, that Willemse took the bit properly between his teeth in the international season and made the graduation from fringe international player to the world class player he ended the year as.
And then there is Junior Springbok captain Sacha Feinberg-Mngomezulu, who we first saw when he played as a replacement in last season’s quarter-final, was selected to tour but didn’t play.
With Italy beating Australia for the first time, and Ireland going through the autumn internationals unbeaten, plus Scotland pushing New Zealand all the way before thumping Argentina and being unlucky not to beat the Wallabies at the start of this phase, it could be argued that the success of the Vodacom URC, and the impetus given to the competition by South African participation, was writ large.
Spencer looking to bring innovation to Sky Super Rugby Aupiki
Former All Blacks and Blues first five-eighths Carlos Spencer hopes to pass on the sort of rugby that marked his career as a backs coach for the Blues women’s side in Sky Super Rugby Aupiki in 2023.
The 99-time Blues’ pivot played 44 Tests for the All Blacks and 89 games for Auckland during his career spanning the turn of the century. He also played for Northampton and Gloucester in the English Premiership.
Since building his coaching record after completing his rugby-playing career in South Africa in Gauteng, he has coached in the Republic, the United States and the Hurricanes in Wellington.
Now he has taken the chance to join head coach Willie Walker and fellow assistant coach Linda Itunu with the Blues.
Spencer, 47, said: “When I was playing, I always liked to bring a bit of innovation and ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking to the table. Now, as a coach, I want to encourage and help grow those same traits in our Blues wahine.”
Like most of New Zealand, he was caught up in the Black Ferns’ World Cup success, and he anticipates there will be a follow-on effect in Sky Super Rugby Aupiki.
“You’ve seen the rise of women’s rugby and the way the public got right in behind the Black Ferns.
“We’re at an exciting juncture for the sport, and I’m looking forward to getting involved and doing what I can to help grow and support women’s rugby.”
“I’ve known Willie [Walker] for a while. We’ve thrown the touch ball around and have a good relationship. He’s done some fantastic work with the Auckland Storm in the Farah Palmer Cup, and I’m looking forward to exchanging ideas and getting the backline humming.
“I don’t know Linda, but have seen her exploits on the field for many years with the Black Ferns – she was an enforcer on the field,”
Blues chief executive Andrew Hore said having Spencer on board with the Blues organisation was special, and was an example of harnessing the resources available within the franchise’s region.
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