Cape Town - His stirring try, crucial to another necessary Springbok comeback initiative, said so much about Duane Vermeulen’s general imperiousness again in the second, series-sealing Test against England at Bloemfontein on Saturday.
South Africa were under the cosh for a second week on the trot during the first quarter, and 0-12 down when the powerhouse eighth-man began a fierce charge just inside the English 22-metre line.
First he burst clear, then disdainfully handed off visiting muscleman Maro Itoje - sending him sprawling to the deck - broke a tackle through sheer leg strength, and finally wrestled his way over the line with a couple of defenders clinging to him like hapless passengers on a sinking vessel.
It was just the sort of gee-up the Boks needed. For a redeveloping side, the way they gradually transformed the match, in almost a carbon copy of the first encounter, was a reflection of amazing maturity, skill and collective resolve.
Vermeulen was again at the fulcrum of things both on attack and defence, this time finally earning the official player-of-the-match award after this writer had also felt he warranted it by a short head from gritty scrumhalf Faf de Klerk (who got it) in Johannesburg.
England, after 12 points in the first 12 minutes, were not allowed the liberty of a single extra one for the remainder of the Test as Siya Kolisi’s Boks sent the crowd into raptures with a thoroughly deserved 23-12 outcome, ensuring a dead rubber at Newlands next week.
“I don’t know why we start so slowly,” afterwards said one of the younger, emerging members of the current team, right wing S’bu Nkosi, “but when the boys do wake up the vibe is amazing.”
Few Bok supporters would disagree on that point …
Here’s how I rated the Boks in Bloemfontein:
Willie le Roux: 7
Lost his first aerial contest … but that was about it for noticeable blemishes, really. His hands only got more secure as the game developed, and positional play was usually sound even if he didn’t float lethally into attacks to the extent of last week.
S’bu Nkosi: 7
Penalised for blocking in one contest for a high ball, and failed to stop Jonny May en route to his try after coming across from the opposite side to aid a stretched defence. But also made some committed tackles, chased kicks stealthily and showed strong leg drive.
Lukhanyo Am: 5.5
No train-smash, but again couldn’t really stamp his mark to the extent he would have liked. Ran one smart inside line, and brought a couple of England runners down at the ankles. Pinged for offside once.
Damian de Allende: 6.5
Needs a bit of technical work to stop the habit of having the ball stripped in promising situations. But also worked his socks off much of the time, including some firm hits, a thrilling breakout from deep after intercepting, and deft changes of pace and angles.
Aphiwe Dyantyi: 6.5
As with Johannesburg, a constant willingness to get involved, even if space seldom presented itself for him to get to full pace. Won a welcome breakdown penalty.
Handre Pollard: 7
A solid general at flyhalf, where he easily eclipsed erratic opposite number George Ford. Policed his channel well, and kicked almost flawlessly at posts, including a sweetly-struck long-range monster.
Faf de Klerk: 7
Less flawless than in first Test, including one or two wasted passes to nobody in particular. But once again you could not fault his plucky commitment, including eye-opening physical desire for so diminutive a player. His decisive left-footed clearances or tactical kicks were an important contributor to the win.
Duane Vermeulen: 8
Near-sensational for a second week on the trot, and in a second high-altitude game, which only underlined that the gnarly veteran still has the stamina and competitive juices (and then some) for Test rugby. Superb, supplementary leadership figure, devastating ball-carrier and earnest breakdown scrapper. Wasn’t going to retreat one inch when argy-bargy broke out, either …
Pieter-Steph du Toit: 7.5
Grew into the game tremendously, including seamless shift to second row when RG Snyman was subbed after 56 minutes. One of the Bok hard guys in uncompromising, sometimes fractious tussle. Huge hit on Mako Vunipola (who also should have seen yellow card when he blatantly slapped Du Toit in face once), and his tackle count just mounted and mounted.
Siya Kolisi: 7
The birthday boy once again led with calm efficiency and assuredness - certainly overshadowing sometimes hot-headed rival skipper Owen Farrell. Won a breakdown penalty, and was consistently closer to the ball, I felt, and more industrious than we’ve seen for some weeks from him.
Franco Mostert: 7
Played the full match, which was at least partly a tribute to his legendary durability. Does the not-so-flash stuff admirably, and contributed to broadly dominant tight five. Secure at kick-offs, and vitally dislodged a ball once to help deny Brad Shields a try.
RG Snyman: 6.5
Dream debut in first Test, so something of a come-down in “Bloem” was almost inevitable. Still pulled his weight determinedly for almost an hour, mind you.
Frans Malherbe: 5
Badly undercooked in high-level game time, so let’s not be too quick to write the tighthead off. But he did seem off the pace for Test rugby in his 44 minutes, including conceding a very rapid penalty at scrum-time. No 3 berth stays fluid for Boks.
Bongi Mbonambi: 7
Coming on in leaps and bounds at this premier tier, enough for Boks not to be missing big Malcolm Marx too much. Secured breakdown penalty, had one fine rampage, and showed clever maul management as well.
Tendai Mtawarira: 7
Was yanked off pretty early in second half, but perhaps not worst call by Bok coaches given the emotional burden/distraction of his 100th cap. Nevertheless, lively, robust display in the time he was on, including terrific charge moments before Vermeulen’s try.
Akker van der Merwe: 6.5
A lineout went awry with him the thrower, but otherwise the “Angry Warthog” scuttled around with typical relish for half an hour, making tackles and generally being quick to heat-laden areas. Co-front row subs Steven Kitshoff and Thomas du Toit were good as well.
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